10/17/2013 03:50 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Teens Lack Empathy?

We've been wondering for years why teens seem to be so self-centered and at times so insensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others. This is true of both teen boys and girls. Just consider all of the dreadful bullying that goes on during the teen years. Interestingly, just today I had a mother of a teen come to my office to ask why her teen is so self-centered. Well, a new study may provide us with some answers A recent study by Jolie van der Graff and colleagues published in the journal Developmental Psychology tracked "cognitive empathy" of teens over time.

The findings of this study are fascinating and may explain quite a bit about the behavior of teens.The study findings included: Beginning at age 13 teen girls show an increasing ability to engage in "cognitive empathy" which is defined as the ability to understand another individual's perspective or point of view. In other words, it is the ability to step into another person's shoes. Boys differed from girls in that their ability to engage in "cognitive empathy" started increasing at a later age -- 15. The study's results were interpreted as being evidence for the role of biology and brain development over parenting when it comes to the development of empathy.

While this may in fact explain teens' difficulty with empathy during the early and mid-teen years it does not excuse it. Yes, the brain may not be fully developed but there are still many things that parents can do to help these empathy skills along including:

1. Model empathic behavior. Talk out loud about how you are interpreting and considering the perspective of others. Your teens are watching you and you are their most important role models.

2. Point out social cues to your teen. Teach them how to interpret social cues. They may lack this skill given how much time they spend texting and using electronic technology as a method of communicating.

3. Praise your teens when you see them behaving in an empathic manner. We often forget how important positive feedback is to our teens.

4. Make your teens aware of how much impact their behavior may have on others. Honestly, they may not be aware of how much they may be upsetting a peer, a sibling or even you!


5. Be patient and know that empathy should improve with age.

As our teens get older they sure do show improvements in their behavior. As empathy increases we should expect a decline in bullying behavior. I would love to see a long term study that measures the relationship between bullying and level of empathy over time. It would also be quite intriguing to see what happens as our teens enter college and how their level of empathy changes from freshman year to senior year. Does having older siblings increase younger siblings level of empathy? This too is a question that needs to be answered.

As a psychologist I am inclined to believe that empathy is just one of the factors that is related to bullying. It's likely an important factor but emotional maturity, friend group and modeling in the home are likely to be equally important. In the meantime let's focus on building empathy.

Good luck!