Root of teen empathy begins with secure relationships at home, study finds

Teens show higher levels of empathic behavior toward their friends when they have good family relationships, the study shows.

(CNN)Teenagers who have close, secure relationships with their families are more likely to extend empathy to their peers, according to a new study.

More specifically, when teens feel safe, supported by and connected to parents or other adult caregivers, they are better equipped to pass the empathy they receive on to others.
"I don't think teens in particular like being told what to do, and I don't think it's going to work to tell teens they should empathize with other people," said Jessica Stern, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychology at the University of Virginia. "But what does work is showing them empathy, and they can pay it forward to the people in their lives."
    Stern's work revolves around how having secure relationships contributes to prosocial behavior, or behavior driven by the intent to benefit others.
      She studies parent-child relationships, also known as attachment theory, which is "the idea that all human beings have a fundamental need for connection," but the quality of those connections may differ. Stern said those differences matter because they "shape who we become over time."
      Teens who are more empathic show lower levels of aggression and prejudice and are less likely to bully, Stern added, and this is why understanding how relationships shape empathy is important.
      The study, conducted at the University of Virginia's Adolescent Research Group, followed 174 adolescents from the ages of 14 to 18 to track their progress annually. At age 14, researchers interviewed the teens regarding their family relationships using a modified version of the Adult Attachment Interview, which is considered the "gold standard" of assessing one's attachment state of mind, according to the study.
        Stern said this prompted the teens to share descriptions and stories about their families. Researchers paid attention not only to what the teens said, but also how they articulated it.
        "Some of those stories have a lot of pain, some of them have a lot of real beauty and closeness, but we're really looking for how teens tell their stories," Stern said. "So, can teens talk about their close relationships in a way that's calm and clear? Can they take a situation that's maybe difficult and make sense out of it?"
        After these initial interviews, researchers went back to the participants at ages 16, 17 and 18 and observed their interactions with a close friend. The researchers noted how the participants responded when their friend presented a problem and confided in them, assessing the participants' extension of empathy.
        Teens who had more secure family relationships showed higher empathy toward