Mindfulness Promotes Empathy and Coping Skills in Teens



There are many social skills that teens are still developing. On the whole, when teens learn to be more empathetic, they will have healthier relationships with their family and friends. However, for most adolescents, the teen brain hasn’t yet developed this skill, but they can start practicing now. Typically, teens may continue to be worried about their appearance, whether they fit in, and their role in the social situation. They may not be thinking about the feelings and thoughts of others.

Empathy is a social skill that will get stronger as their brains continue to develop. For instance, most therapists, counselors, and parents know how to be empathetic. It’s the ability to place yourself within the inner landscape of another person. It’s experiencing a connection with another that takes into account his or her entire inner world – thoughts, ideas, attitudes.

The two kinds of empathy – cognitive and affective – develop differently in adolescent males and females. For instance, cognitive empathy, the mental ability to see the perspective of others, begins to develop steadily in girls at age 13. Research shows, however, that for boys, cognitive empathy doesn’t begin to develop until the age of 15. The ability to see the perspective of others facilitates problem solving and avoids relational conflict. It might explain the conflicts in relationships that are more common among adolescent boys than girls.

In fact, teen boys show a temporary decline in the development of the related skill, affective empathy, the ability to recognize and respond to the feelings of others. Between the ages of 13 and 16, boys show a decreased ability in affective empathy, but recover in their late teens. The affective empathy for girls remains relatively high and stable throughout adolescence.

Describing recent research on the teen brain, Jennifer Pfeifer, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon commented “the brain regions that support social cognition, which help us understand and interact with others successfully, continue to change dramatically in teens.”  This research facilitates the exploration of social behaviors among adolescents such as bullying and teen drug addiction.

Interestingly, mindfulness can help develop empathy in teens. In fact, mindfulness can be a very effective practice for teens who might be experiencing teen addiction, bullying, and other social conflicts. Mindfulness is the practice of becoming conscious of your internal and external environment. It is a mental state achieved by focusing on the present moment, while acknowledging and accepting the existing feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations, and surrounding activity.

Because affective and cognitive empathy are abilities that allow teens to recognize and respond to the feelings and perspectives of others, mindfulness promotes the ability to be empathetic with others. Mindfulness encourages the ability to recognize the happenings in one’s internal and external environment, as well as get a sense of the internal landscape of others in social interactions.

Mindfulness can also encourage:

insight – the ability to explore memories of the past, along with memories of the present, and imagine how it might be in the future.

attuned communication – the kind of connection that is common among parents and their children, between close friends meeting for coffee or a couple out on a date. Attuned communication is when two human beings feel as though they are a part of one resonating whole.

For a teen struggling with the chaos of adolescence, a mindfulness practice can have incredible positive effects on the mind, body, and heart.