Bullying Prevention Awareness Month: Where is the Empathy?


In an interview on Fox 2 News on Thursday October 10, 2013 Clinic Director of Birmingham Maple Clinic, Lori Edelson instructed parents to teach empathy to reduce incidence of bullying in school age children. After her profound statement other experts gave similar advice. A Florida arrest of 14 year olds following the suicide of their young female bullying victim inspired Today Show experts to also encourage teaching empathy and emotional regulation as the remedy to end this harsh treatment of one another.

New research, reported in the Wall Street journal on October 15, 2013 indicates that biology, not parenting, may have a greater impact on teen empathy. Adolescence has long been known as the time for developing self-control and executive functioning. This news article cites research that empathy skills undergo dramatic changes during adolescence.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others is broken in to two categories in a six-year study published recently in Developmental Psychology.
Cognitive empathy,” or the mental ability to take others’ perspective, begins rising steadily in girls at age 13, but boys don’t begin to show improvements in perspective taking until age 15. This skill helps in problem-solving and avoiding conflict. “Affective empathy,” or the ability to recognize and respond to others’ feelings, according to the study actually shows a temporary decline, in males between ages 13 and 16. Girls’ affective empathy, conversely, remains relatively high and stable throughout adolescence.

Affective empathy originates in limbic region of the brain, which regulates emotions. This ability begins developing in infancy when parents respond sensitively to babies’ emotions. Children continue to learn this skill by watching their parents or by having felt the experience themselves when others respond warmly to their feelings. Cognitive empathy, however, arises from a different part of the brain, the medial prefrontal cortex. This brain region continues developing later, through teen years. WSJ cites emerging research that suggests the two are linked; children’s affective empathy predicts their level of cognitive empathy as teens.

There are multiple explanations for the decline in empathy among middle and high school boys. Some explanations may be increased testosterone which contributes to strong experience of power and dominance rather than empathy or social pressures to “act like a man” that imply being detached, funny, aloof, and tough are preferred. Another explanation is some teens may appear insensitive because they’re actually struggling to avoid being overwhelmed by their own emerging feelings of empathy.

Although there are many biological changes impacting the degree of empathy your child will show at adolescence you can help to foster this skill. The Wall Street Journal indicates a 2011 study of 15- to 18-year-old boys in Developmental Psychology demonstrates fathers seem to play a special role. Teens whose fathers are supportive and who say they feel better after talking over their worries with their dads, are more skilled at perspective-taking, the cornerstone of empathy.

Parents can impact the development empathy by encouraging prosocial empathic behaviors. Parents can use verbal praise, high fives, tokens or other rewards to support empathic behaviors. Some target behaviors include eye contact, kind tone, taking responsibility without blame or excuse, accepting “no,” accepting limits (physical or emotional), nodding, responding back to what you heard (both spoken and unspoken cues), using feeling words and “I statements.” Parents should also set limits for behaviors that do not convey empathy such as physical violence, damage to another’s property, harsh criticisms, and lack or remorse.

Most importantly parents can model empathy by sensitively listening to their child’s feelings. Saying “Wow, that is really tough” or “I understand” or “This is how I would feel if it happened to me” will teach empathic skills.

If communication with your teen has broken down and your home is filled with the sounds and sights of slamming doors, eye rolls, and other insensitivity, you may benefit from speaking to a therapist. Trained professionals will be able to explain what behavior is normal and distinguish between other more concerning issues like antisocial behavior or conduct disorder. A therapist can also demonstrate and teach empathic communication skills and safely reflect the experience of others.

This article is part of our October focus on Bullying Prevention Awareness Month.  If these articles are relevant to your situation, schedule an appointment for you or your family visit www.birminghammaple.com or call (248) 646-6659.


Shellenberger, Sue. “Teens Are Still Developing Empathy Skills.” The Wall Street Journal. October 15, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304561004579137514122387446?mod=e2tw

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