Teens, especially boys, need to brush up on empathy

More evidence that it’s never to late to learn or relearn essential life skills, as Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making, has often stressed.

Turns out some boys in their teens may be turning off the switch that turns on empathy, according to an insightful story in the Wall Street Journal this week titled The Teenage Empathy Gap: Vital Social Skill Ebbs and Flows in Adolescent Boys; How to Cultivate Sensitivity.” 

The article states:

Adolescent males actually show a temporary decline, between ages 13 and 16, in a related skill—affective empathy, or the ability to recognize and respond to others’ feelings, according to the study, co-authored by Jolien van der Graaff, a doctoral candidate in the Research Centre Adolescent Development at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Fortunately, the boys’ sensitivity recovers in the late teens. Girls’ affective empathy remains relatively high and stable through adolescence.

Clearly, the case can be made that there should be ongoing learning when it comes to taking the perspective of others.

This skill is not just essential for children, maintains Galinsky.

“It’s essential for adults too,” Galinsky explained in a Psychology Today article. “The man considered one of the greatest thinkers about modern management, the late Peter Drucker, has said that an “outside-in perspective” -seeing things as a customer or client would see them- is responsible for the creation of some of the most innovative businesses of the past and present. Think of iPods, Google, and eBay-innovative products and companies that understood a need that hadn’t existed beforehand.”

Indeed, the Wall Street Journal article reiterated this notion.

Kids who develop affective and cognitive empathy form healthy relationships and argue less with their parents, research shows. Perspective-taking continues to be central for adults on the job, helping in designing and selling products and services, building user-friendly devices, and working smoothly with others with diverse viewpoints and backgrounds.

And the piece also talked about how important dads are when it comes to helping their sons get on the right empathy track, preparing them for the work world and their personal lives.

Fathers seem to play a special role. Teens whose fathers are supportive, who say they feel better after talking over their worries with their dads, are more skilled at perspective-taking, says a 2011 study of 15- to 18-year-old boys in Developmental Psychology.