I Feel Your Pain: Teens and Empathy

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Woman offering support to another woman

Can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes? Developing empathy—being able to read someone else’s feelings and relate them to your own—depends to some extent on brain development.

Although it sounds simple to be able to imagine the nervousness your friend felt about playing her first JV soccer match, for example, it may be hard for teens to have empathy because their brains aren’t yet hard-wired for it. Brain imaging studies show that teens and adults may use different mental strategies for figuring out someone’s intentions or motives for doing something. The ability to understand what others are feeling is important in forming close relationships, tolerating differing points of view, and keeping us from hurting others because of misunderstandings.

Even more, some people seem to be inherently better at empathizing than others. Dr. Abigail Marsh, a researcher at Georgetown University, studies empathy—or the lack of it—in teens. Dr. Marsh measures this quality by using brain imaging technology to look at activity in the brain’s amygdala while showing both groups of teens pictures of fearful faces. She theorizes that “exposure to and correct interpretation of certain distress cues may predict the likelihood” of developing behaviors like empathy.

According to Dr. Marsh, you can aid the development of empathy by practicing the following three ways of tuning into others’ feelings:

  1. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Is it possible that it hurt your friend’s feelings when you said her choice of birthday presents “sucked”? Can you share in your sister’s excitement for acing her physics exam?
  2. Recognize others’ emotions if you have felt them yourself. How do you feel when someone makes you mad? Have you ever noticed when something you said out of anger or frustration had that effect on someone else?
  3. Pay attention. Are you too busy tuning into how no one “gets you” to notice the needs of other people around you? Other people may need your understanding as much as you need theirs.


Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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