Specifically, when teens feel safe, supported, and connected to their parents or other adult caregivers, they are better equipped to convey the empathy they receive to others.
“I don’t think teens in particular like to be told what to do, and I don’t think it will work to tell teens that they should empathize with other people,” said Jessica Stern, lead author. of the study and postdoctoral fellow. in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia. “But what works is showing them empathy, and they can pass it on to the people in their lives.”
Stern’s work revolves around how having secure relationships contributes to prosocial behavior, or behavior motivated by the intention to benefit others.
She studies parent-child relationships, also known as attachment theory, which is “the idea that all human beings have a basic need for connection, but we somehow vary in how we establish those connections, ”she said. “These differences in the quality of our relationships kind of shape who we become over time.”
Teens who are more empathetic show lower levels of aggression and prejudice and are less likely to bully, Stern added, and that’s why it’s important to understand how relationships shape empathy.
Stern said it prompted the teens to share descriptions and stories about their families. The researchers paid attention not only to what the teens said, but also to how they expressed it.
“Some of these stories are very painful, some have a lot of beauty and closeness, but we’re really looking at how teens tell their stories,” Stern said. “So can teens talk about their close relationships in a calm and clear manner? Can they take a situation that may be difficult and make sense of it? ”
After these initial interviews, the researchers returned to the participants aged 16, 17 and 18 and observed their interactions with a close friend. The researchers noted how participants reacted when their friend presented a problem and confided in them, gauging the extent of participants’ empathy.
Teens who had more secure family relationships showed greater empathy towards their friends at 16 and 17 years old than less secure teens. It’s not all bad news, however, as less secure teens “caught up” to their empathetic behavior by the age of 18, much to Stern’s surprise.
It’s a cause for hope, she said, as it may indicate that these empathic skills can develop over time for teens who don’t have good relationships at home. Stern suggested having strong friendships or a trusted teacher might impact the empathy of unsure teenagers, but she said more research should be done to find out more.
The findings are consistent with much past research linking positive relationships to the development of empathy in adolescence, said Mary Buckingham, assistant research professor at Tufts University’s Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development. . She did not participate in the study.
“Relationships with important adults are important for developing empathy,” Buckingham said. “The results suggest that in order to raise an empathetic teenager, parents must mold and encourage empathy.”
She said that, as noted in the study, research shows a correlation between secure relationships and empathy, but it shouldn’t be interpreted as a causal relationship just yet. Further research needs to examine not only the quality of the attachment relationship between a parent and child, but also the potential impacts of socialization and other aspects of parenting, Buckingham added.
Since the research focused on the study sample means, it also said that an examination of the individual differences between the participants was necessary.
“The article does not shed light on the individual differences that might exist within adolescents and the specific developmental specifics of each adolescent that might occur,” Buckingham said. “Future research should examine what specific experiences, for which young people, in what wider contexts, at what times in life, can lead to bonds of attachment and empathy.”
More research is already underway on this particular group of participants, who are now in their mid-30s, Stern said. Led by Joseph Allen, professor of psychology and head of the Adolescent Research Group at the University of Virginia, the researchers want to see how the empathic abilities they examined in adolescents now shape their romantic relationships and parenting behavior at adulthood.
“It’s important to be able to kind of see from other people’s perspective and understand how other people feel about a variety of other things that we consider to be successful in the world,” Stern said.
For parents and even teachers, Stern advises understanding the need for empathy and truly investing in relationships with teens. Providing role models for empathetic behavior, including treating others with kindness, respect, and support, can help teens internalize that behavior, whether they realize it or not.
Adults should also encourage teens to invest in their relationships with their friends, which the study found also helps develop empathy as a skill, Stern said. However, she added, teens who decide to befriend do matter.
“We all have different types of families and we can’t choose our family, but we can choose our friends,” Stern said. “Choose your friends wisely and choose the people who make you feel safe, supported and connected and who support you, and do that for them too, because it really matters.”