Empathetic Teens Come From More Secure Homes, Study Says

Group of teens talking with each other
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Key Takeaways

  • Teens with a supportive family and secure attachment demonstrated more empathy with close friends.
  • Close friends tend to seek further support from adolescents who had secure attachment from supportive family relationships.
  • For teens who lacked secure family relationships in adolescence, there was a pattern of catching up regarding empathy.

Empathy is often encouraged for healthy relationships. A study published in Child Development found that a secure attachment at the age of 14 predicted a greater capacity to demonstrate empathy with friends from 16 to 18.

With many individuals finally becoming increasingly aware of longstanding oppression, it will be more crucial than ever to think critically about how to foster empathy for future generations to make much-needed change. Encouraging the empathy needed for critical, social changes begins in the home when teens are supported within their own family.

The Research Study

This multimethod longitudinal study assessed how secure attachment predicted empathic support for friends from the ages of 14 to 18, among 184 adolescents across the Southeastern United States, of whom 58% identified as white, 29% identified as Black, and 13% identified as other racial backgrounds.

For this study, adolescents participated in an interview about their attachment relationships at the age of 14, from which security was based on descriptions of supportive relationships, after which follow-up at 16, 17, and 18 years assessed the empathy demonstrated among friends.

A limitation of the study is its focus on only the U.S., but it is still significant as the first to assess how attachment is related to the development of empathy using longitudinal methods and observations of friends through adolescence and found that secure attachment predicted greater empathy.

Empathy Is Fundamental to Relationships

Behavioral health medical director at Community Health of South Florida, psychiatrist Howard Pratt, DO, says, “Empathy in the context of relationships is about the ability and genuine desire to understand and put yourself in the shoes of the other person in the relationship.”

Since empathy is fundamental to relationships, Pratt explains how it determines how we show affection to let people know that they matter. “If there is no empathy, then people end up feeling not cared about, that their emotions, how they feel, just aren’t important and that hurts,” he says.

Howard Pratt, DO

If there is no empathy, then people end up feeling not cared about, that their emotions, how they feel, just aren’t important and that hurts.

— Howard Pratt, DO

Pratt says, "What makes a secure home will be determined by the adults in the home or family. Children are always mirroring behaviors, as they are seeing how the adults in the home treat each other, and how they show affection, and even how they disagree and/or fight helps form a model for how kids will view relationships and behave within them."

The better a family can express themselves to each other, whether in agreement or disagreement, acknowledging and validating each other and avoiding being cruel, dismissive, or contemptuous, then Pratt highlights how the kids will have a more secure home. "In other words, if the parents in the home are supportive of each other and can demonstrate that to their children, then kids will generally learn to do the same," he says.

Pratt says, "In homes where families are supportive of each of its members—and keeping in mind that by supportive, this doesn’t mean that it has to appear so to everyone else outside the family, but rather within the home." From seeing how family cares about each other, Pratt elucidates how children understand how feelings are taken into consideration, so they tend to carry that sense of security into forming better friendships.

Empathy Can Mean Difficult Conversations

New York-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University, Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, says, "Empathy literally translates to being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes. Without being able to do that, relationships become one-sided and selfish, with one person assuming that they are always right, and only their feelings matter." 

Since nobody wants to be in a relationship where they do not matter, Hafeez explains how empathy can evoke feelings of understanding. "While it comes more naturally to some, it can also be modeled most of all by parents to teach their children how to see the world with more than one lens. A secure attachment means the child feels unconditionally loved, and does not fear being abandoned because a parent went to work, or away," she says.

Hafeez says, "Parents, even in conflicted homes, can work on modeling empathetic behavior for their children. This can mean having difficult conversations about race, BLM, or LGBTQ issues. Not all families have the same values so while this can be tricky, a good place may be to read or learn together, even explore family therapy that might start a safe conversation." 

Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

Parents, even in conflicted homes, can work on modeling empathetic behavior for their children. This can mean having difficult conversations about race, BLM, or LGBTQ issues.

— Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

For example, Hafeez explains that an altercation at school can be a starter where the parent can share how their child may be more fortunate or have it easier than a peer. "Secure attachments can be built by having candid conversations, affirmations of love, and praise, as well as following through on your word. Children who can trust the adults around them, grow up to be trustworthy, and thus form long-lasting, happier relationships," she says.

Hafeez says, "Securely attached individuals can usually form healthy relationships and friendships. The absence of mental health issues can sometimes have a familial or genetic component, so families should be cognizant of this. You will often find that a parent with healthy relationships will have children with the same, leading back to the nature-versus-nurture conversation, but a lot can be done by teaching empathy."

What This Means For You

As the research demonstrates, adolescents from supportive families tend to form secure attachments, which predict greater empathy with friends. As you engage with others, it can help to think critically about how oppression may pose a barrier to secure attachments, as it may provide a reason to demonstrate empathy for marginalized groups.

1 Source
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  1. Stern JA, Costello MA, Kansky J, Fowler C, Loeb EL, Allen JP. Here for you: attachment and the growth of empathic support for friends in adolescence. Child Dev. Published online July 15, 2021. doi:10.1111/cdev.13630

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.