Empathy is an emotional response that individuals feel when they can imagine how another person is feeling, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Most people fall somewhere on a spectrum that ranges from being able to imagine another person’s perspective to becoming deeply involved in another person’s experiences. When teenagers have low empathy, it can affect their relationships with others. Although aggression is not always linked with low empathy, not experiencing empathy does sometimes relate to acting aggressively toward other individuals.
Although empathy was once considered innate to humans, researchers in a 2011 Scientific American article stated that empathy levels had dropped over the previous decade. This was especially true for teens; teen empathy had been on the decline for 30 years. Researchers haven’t yet determined the explanation for low teen empathy levels, but some theories explain the drop as a result of increased social isolation.
Examples of aggression can include physical aggression, insults, manipulating relationships or expressing disdain through body language, according to a 2011 University of Miami study. Because children’s emotional development and social skills change as they grow, it’s not abnormal for teens to experience different levels of social aggression as they grow and mature. Low empathy might be signaled by laughing at individuals in distress, or ignoring someone who expresses that she is feeling sad or upset.
In the article, “Empathy and Emotional Responsiveness in Delinquent and Non-delinquent Adolescents,” researchers state that aggressive children often ignore social cues that could help them get along with others, but pay extra attention to cues they interpret as aggressive. When aggressive children encounter an ambiguous social situation, they are also more likely to interpret the situation as aggressive rather than an opportunity to express empathy. Along with low empathy levels, aggressive children also often have higher levels of shame and guilt.
In 2012, "Psychology Today" writer Ugo Uche described empathy as a result of social conditioning, so parents can work to help boost their teen’s empathy levels. Parents can encourage teens to have empathy and compassion for others by modeling it themselves, according to a March 2013 "Psychology Today" article. If you witness your teen act aggressively or without empathy (for example, laughing or acting inappropriately when a teammate is injured during a game) you might consider pulling him from the team temporarily. In the "Psychology Today" article “A Link Between Empathy and Depression,” parents are encouraged to reward not only academic achievement in the home, but also kind acts toward others. Many teens want to be productive, contributing members of their communities, and developing empathy is one way to help achieve this goal. Teens who act unwilling to engage emotionally might lack confidence to do so, so parents can praise teens when they observe teens attempting to express empathy.