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Factors That Influence Empathy in Children or Teens

by Ashley Miller, studioD

Empathy is an important life skill that helps people feel connected and relate to each other. It can be defined as the ability to experience the same or a very similar emotion that another person is feeling, according to psychology professor and childhood development expert Nancy Eisenberg in an interview with the "New York Times." Although the exact ways a child cultivates empathy aren't entirely understood, a number of factors may have an impact on its development.


Genetics may play an important role in a child's or teen's ability to develop empathy. According to researcher Carolyn Zahn-Waxler of the University of Madison-Wisconsin in an interview with the "New York Times," there's no specific gene for empathy, but some of the personality characteristics that influence empathy may be heritable. Personality characteristics that may impact the development of empathy include traits like agreeableness or sensitivity. Other inherited characteristics, known as "callous-unemotional traits," may predispose some children to a lack of empathy, according to an article published in the September 2008 issue of the journal, "Psychiatry."

Parental Modeling

Children learn by imitating and observing parental behavior and attitudes, the process also referred to as modeling. Parental modeling may have a strong influence on the development of empathy in children and teens, says author and hospice chaplain Sue Bergen in an article for the Winter 2007 issue of "Brigham Young University Magazine." Children who observe parents displaying empathetic behaviors, such as kindness and calmness, may be better equipped to develop these behaviors than children who observe negative, punishing or cruel behaviors from parents. If your child observes you treating your spouse with love and consideration, he will learn that this is an appropriate and acceptable way to act toward others. Contrarily, if you treat people with rudeness or callousness, he will also learn that this is acceptable and appropriate behavior.

Cultural Influences

Cultural factors may also have an impact on the development of empathy in children and teens. In North American culture, for example, a high value is placed on prosocial behaviors and an empathetic response. In other cultures, the same values may not apply or may not apply to the same extent. The cultural background of the family may affect a child's ability to develop or capacity to display empathy, according to a study published in 2010 in the "Journal of Cognition and Culture." (see ref. 4 first page and p. 312)


Exposure to parental abuse or neglect can have a detrimental impact on a child or teen's ability to cultivate empathy. According to author Betty Rintoul and fellow researchers in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's publication, "Factors in Child Development," exposure to childhood abuse has a negative effect on a child's ability to develop a secure, positive attachment to parents. Abused or neglected children often have tremendous difficulty relating to others, are unable to see another point of view and usually display serious deficits in empathy.

About the Author

Ashley Miller is a licensed social worker, psychotherapist, certified Reiki practitioner, yoga enthusiast and aromatherapist. She has also worked as an employee assistance program counselor and a substance-abuse professional. Miller holds a Master of Social Work and has extensive training in mental health diagnosis, as well as child and adolescent psychotherapy. She also has a bachelor's degree in music.

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