Empathy Skills Develop During Teen Years
Jim Liebelt Jim Liebelt's Blog
- 2013 Oct 21
The teen years are often fraught with door-slamming, eye-rolling and seeming insensitivity, even by kids who behaved kindly before. Some parents worry that they're doing something wrong, or that their children will never think of anyone but themselves.
New research shows that biology, not parenting, is to blame.
In adolescence, critical social skills that are needed to feel concern for other people and understand how they think are undergoing major changes. Adolescence has long been known as prime time for developing cognitive skills for self-control, or executive function.
"Cognitive empathy," or the mental ability to take others' perspective, begins rising steadily in girls at age 13, according to a six-year study published recently in Developmental Psychology. But boys don't begin until age 15 to show gains in perspective-taking, which helps in problem-solving and avoiding conflict.
Adolescent males actually show a temporary decline, between ages 13 and 16, in a related skill — affective empathy, or the ability to recognize and respond to others' feelings, according to the study, co-authored by Jolien van der Graaff, a doctoral candidate in the Research Centre Adolescent Development at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Fortunately, the boys' sensitivity recovers in the late teens. Girls' affective empathy remains relatively high and stable through adolescence.
The findings reflect a major expansion in researchers' understanding of cognitive growth during adolescence, according to a 2012 research review co-authored by Ronald Dahl, a professor of public health at the University of California at Berkeley. Researchers used to believe that both forms of empathy were fully formed during childhood.
Now, it's clear that "the brain regions that support social cognition, which helps us understand and interact with others successfully, continue to change dramatically" in the teens, says Jennifer Pfeifer, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Preliminary research in her lab also suggests cognitive empathy rises in teens. The discoveries serve as a new lens for exploring such teen behaviors as bullying and drug abuse.
Source: Wall Street Journal