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Empathy Skills for Adolescents With Conduct Disorder

by Sharon H. Bolling

Conduct disorder (CD) is a group of behavioral and emotional problems in children and teenagers that may cause them to be viewed as delinquent rather than mentally ill, according to the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. CD can be caused by brain damage, child abuse or neglect, genetics, academic failure or traumatic life experiences. Many of the signs of CD reflect lack of empathy, such as aggression, destruction of property, deceitfulness and rule violation.

Lack of Empathy

Minet de Wied, et al., in a 2009 essay for "The European Journal of Pharmacology," points out that practitioners view lack of empathy in relation to conduct disorder in two ways. Clinically, adolescents with CD are thought to have little empathy or concern for the well-being of others. Scientifically, lack of empathy can be a risk factor in developing aggressive behaviors that lead to CD. De Wied's study of research shows a connection between brain structure and environmental interaction during infancy and early childhood and the development of empathy.

Empathy Skills

Possessing empathetic skills should limit the expression of aggressive behaviors. De Wied defines these skills as being able to discriminate and label the emotions of others, adopting the perspective of the other person and responding with the appropriate affection. A malfunctioning violence inhibition mechanism is another possible explanation for lack of empathetic skills. The proper function of the limbic system of the brain, specifically the amygdala, is connected to the development of antisocial behaviors. Because the amygdala is partially responsible for regulating social behaviors, it is no surprise that brain scans of adolescents with CD show reduced amygdala volume, points out Philipp Sterzer, et al., in a 2007 study published in "NeuroImage."

Treating Conduct Disorder

Effective therapy for adolescents with conduct disorder takes time and commitment. Positive results rely on whether the teen can develop a trusting relationship with his counselor, a difficult task for an adolescent with CD. Family-based interventions can be successful in altering behaviors, according to the Behavioral Health Evolution website, a resource for substance use, mental health and co-occurring disorders. While parent training has shown to be more effective with younger children than adolescents, interventions that include the teen's family, school and community can bring about positive change. The intention of multi-systemic therapy is to build stronger bonds within the family and school environments, develop family skills, improve academic confidence and disengage from unhealthy peer relationships.

Parental Role in Building Empathy

While parenting skills may not be the sole reason why children and teens develop conduct disorder, there is evidence that ineffective parenting techniques increase the likelihood of it occurring. Parental rejection, harsh and inconsistent discipline, and poor family relationships increase the risk of CD, says Scott P. Sells, et al., in a 2011 issue of "Professional Issues in Criminal Justice." Parental participation in a teen's treatment program can result in a reduction of aggressive behaviors and an improvement of pro-social behaviors, like empathy.

About the Author

Sharon Bolling holds a master's in counseling and human development with a concentration in school counseling from Radford University. She is an experienced instructor of both high school and college students. She has been writing for Demand Media online since April 2013.

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