Can Teens Learn Empathy?

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If only fortune cookies really had the power to switch the places of parents and their kids so they can better understand one another. Photo from Freaky Friday

Most of us are familiar with the raging hormones and insensitive outbursts typically associated with the teen years. But is it true that there is little a parent can do to instill kindness and compassion during this time?  According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Sue Shellenbarger, “biology, not parenting, is to blame” for the lack of empathy and selfish behavior during adolescence.

Does this mean parents are off the hook—that they should just ride out the wave, expect selfish insensitive behavior, and wait for the calm after the storm when their son or daughter will return as a kind and caring individual? While cognitive changes during adolescence likely play an important role in the development of empathy in teens, this certainly does not tell the whole story.

At a time when schools, parents, and community-based agencies are urgently trying to identify best practices to reduce bullying and other anti-social behavior among adolescents, Shellenbarger’s article sends a misleading message about the importance of parenting and adult role models during this critical time in development.

There is a great deal that parents and other adults can do to build empathy in teens during this transformative developmental stage. Parents and adults can help teens to take other perspectives and value those perspectives. They can encourage teens to appreciate diverse viewpoints and show empathy for individuals beyond their circle of friends. Adults can also give teens strategies for responding to empathy effectively. And we cannot discount the importance of factors such as modeling and environment that also influence empathy—things that we can build upon proactively.

Interestingly, after Shellenbarger’s bold statement, she goes on to explain some of the ways that parents can instill empathy—mainly by encouraging perspective-taking. However, she touches briefly on two very important points for which biology is not to blame. The first, gender-specific socialization pressure may play a significant role in the development of empathy, particularly during the teenage years, as adolescents negotiate with their increasing independence and grapple with identity formation.

words make all the difference

Boys may feel social pressure to conform to the stereotypical expectation that they should be tough and inhibit emotional expression. Girls, on the other hand, are typically encouraged to be caring and emotionally expressive.  Children internalize these expectations from the people around them, particularly from their parents. Parents can make a point of encouraging both their sons and daughters to be kind, caring, and to express a range of emotions appropriately.

The second point, that teens may become overwhelmed by their empathy, is also worth further exploration. Empathy does not always lead to caring and kindness. Sometimes, empathy can cause anxiety or distress, leaving an individual overwhelmed or unsure of how to help. How children and youth translate feelings into behavior is heavily influenced by parenting, adult and peer modeling, and explicit instruction. We can teach children and teens how to deal with these emotions and give them the strategies to manage distress.

In the end, placing blame gets us nowhere. Perhaps the message that we can communicate to parents is that there are many changes happening for teens, both biological and social, and while there may be some ups and downs that parents cannot control, there are key areas where they can have a major influence. They can encourage their children to consider the perspectives of others. They can model empathic behavior. And they can give their children the skills they need to manage with their own and others negative emotions.


Jennifer Kahn

Jennifer Kahn is a Research Coordinator with the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Jennifer coordinates several projects, including the development and piloting of a new student survey tool that will allow school leaders to better understand how students experience their school.  Jennifer is interested in the development of effective research-based school interventions that support social and emotional learning.  She is particularly interested in how individual and contextual factors influence the development and application of social and emotional competencies in both interpersonal and intrapersonal functioning.  Jennifer has an Ed.M. from Harvard and a B.A. in biology from Johns Hopkins University.

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  1. Great article!
    As a former middle & high school Health Educator, young people can learn and practice empathy. I taught this as part of my life-skills curriculum. It took some students longer to buy in than others. But we did role-plays, used examples from their personal lives and had open, honest class discussions.
    If they also see other adults (parents, teachers, coaches) demonstrating empathy, they are certainly ahead of the curve.
    As a youth resilience speaker, I also help teens have empathy for themselves. I think this precedes their ability to show empathy for others.
    Thank you for your research!