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Empathy is the skill that keeps growing

Illustration of a teenager with his parents
Yuke Li

Teenagers who have secure attachments in family relationships “pay it forward” in showing empathy and support for close friends. But even those teens who lack secure family attachments can catch up with their more securely attached peers by late adolescence, demonstrating that empathy is a skill that can be developed and strengthened with practice.

These findings, recently published in the journal Child Development, come from the Adolescence Research Group lab in UVA’s psychology department, where a long-term study tracked development in a cohort of participants from the early teen years through adulthood.

Jessica Stern, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab and lead author for the study, explains that children feel securely attached when they are confident they will receive care and support from a caregiver, particularly in moments of stress. Secure attachment lays the groundwork for social and emotional health and well-being in adolescence and adulthood as well as greater social competence, which becomes particularly important in the teen years as peer relationships play an increasingly significant role.

In the study, researchers interviewed 14-year-olds about their family relationships and then used an established tool to assess attachment. At ages 16, 17 and 18, the teens were invited to the lab with a close friend to talk about a problem the friend wanted help with.

The research confirmed that securely attached teens showed greater empathy with their friends. But the “hopeful story,” Stern says, is that less securely attached teens who started off showing less empathy at age 16 and 17 had “fully caught up to their more secure peers” by the age of 18, suggesting the power of positive peer relationships to support healthy development. “You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends,” Stern says. 

The important takeaway, Stern says, is that empathy is “like a muscle” that strengthens with use. For caregivers, she adds, it’s important to remember that “it’s never too late to build a good relationship with your teen, and teens actually pay forward what you show them.”