How Teen Empathy is Essential to Health and Wellbeing

Empathy is a social skill that begins at birth. Children learn about themselves through the relationships they have with others. Both positive and negative interactions with their environment, siblings, friends, and parents help to shape a child’s ability to be empathetic. Yet, as a child develops through adolescence and into adulthood, empathy becomes an essential skill for healthy relationships, success in the workplace, and even the relationship with oneself. This article will address how parents can facilitate teen empathy and support a healthy transition to adulthood.


Types of Empathy


Empathy is the ability to place yourself within the inner landscape of another person. It’s an experience of connection with another that takes into account the other’s thoughts and emotions. Yet, most adolescents are typically not focused on others, and if they are, they’re wondering what others are thinking about them. But if parents can help develop teen empathy, they’ll be facilitating their teen’s self-esteem, mental health, healthy relationships, and emotional wellbeing.


Fortunately, empathy is a skill that naturally gets easier as the teen brain continues to develop. In fact, parts of the brain that govern and support social and emotional intelligence continue to develop in dramatic ways during adolescence. This is precisely why teens are exploring their role in social situations such as dying their hair and style of dress, and spending time with new and different peer groups.


If parents want to support and develop teen empathy, they should keep in mind that there are three kinds of empathy:


1. Cognitive Empathy – This is the ability to see the perspective of others. The ability to see the perspective of others facilitates problem solving and avoids relational conflict.  Research shows that for boys cognitive empathy doesn’t begin to develop until the age of 15, while in girls it develops steadily at around age 13.


2. Affective Empathy – This is the ability to recognize and respond to the feelings of others. With affective empathy, a teen can feel how their friends are feeling, and there may be a “connection” or “chemistry” between them. Affective empathy doesn’t have to be a romantic connection, but two teens who enjoy the same music might feel affective empathy when they discover their shared interest. 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.


3. Empathetic Concern – This type of empathy not only includes recognizing the emotions of another, but also feeling in tune with those emotions and feeling or showing appropriate concern if those feelings are negative or painful. In other words, with this type of empathy, a teen wants to express concern and/or take some sort of action to assist the other person.


Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, explains that all three types of empathy work together and combined help a person have healthier, more fulfilling relationships. Although each type uses different areas of the brain, together they can support a person’s emotional and psychological wellbeing.


Why Teen Empathy is Important


Between posting the details of their day on Facebook to taking selfies to post on Instagram, many teens can be highly focused on themselves. However, some experts believe that a focus on the self combined with lacking teen empathy can contribute to the following issues:

  • bullying
  • teasing
  • cheating
  • lack of integrity
  • mental health issues

When a teen lacks empathy, they lack the ability to think about how their actions can impact others. They may lack the ability to think about others when making important life decisions. Without empathy, a teen’s family and peer relationships may suffer. Fortunately, parents and caregivers can encourage and help develop empathy in their teen.


How to Foster Teen Empathy


If you are a parent or caregiver raising an adolescent, it’s not too late to strengthen their ability to be empathetic and their emotional intelligence. According to Michele Borba, author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in our All-About-Me World, suggests a few ways to help your teen develop empathy:


Give teens another chance. When teens exhibit uncaring behavior, instead of punishing them, give them an opportunity to make a kinder choice. When parents have their teens make up for a bad choice, they call attention to uncaring behavior. In this process, parents can also state clearly what they expect and encourage them to make amends, if necessary.


Have teens read. Stories can be a powerful way for teens to learn life lessons. To emphasize empathy and to encourage it in your teen, choose an age-appropriate book that includes empathy as a theme.


Foster a moral identity. Michele Borba highlights that there is a difference between a teen who behaves with kindness versus a teen who believes they are a kind person. When parents can instill in their teen that they are an empathetic person, it can go a long way in cultivating empathy in their teen.


Encourage a practice of mindfulness. 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. 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.


Build emotional awareness. Another way to build empathy is to help a teen develop the skill of becoming emotionally aware. When a teen is emotionally aware, they are aware of their feelings when they’re having them. With strong emotional awareness, teens can become more sensitive to the feelings of others.


Encourage your teen to have face-to-face interactions with friends. When teens are in the same room together, they are more likely to be in touch with one another feelings and moods. However, when teens spend most of their time interacting with friends via social media or online forums, teens don’t get the opportunity to practice and strengthen their ability to be empathetic.


These are suggestions for cultivating teen empathy. Remember that empathy builds over time and that different parts of a teen’s developing brain is responsible for different aspects of empathy. If parents and caregivers are encouraging empathy throughout a teen’s adolescence, empathy is going to be second nature when that teen becomes an adult.