The Wall Street Journal recently revealed news which should gladden the hearts of parents of teenagers everywhere: “cognitive empathy”, the wiring in children’s brains that enables them to understand and care about how others think, only begins to develop at age 13. So when your sweet middle schooler disappears and is replaced by an eye-rolling, door slamming “who is that?” child, it is not a sign that you’ve done something wrong, it is that their brains just won’t let them know any better.
What will come as no surprise to parents of boys, this study, authored by Jolien van der Graaff, a doctoral candidate in the Research Centre Adolescent Development at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, further indicates that while girls begin to be concerned about other people’s views and feelings at 13, boys generally don’t start this process, which helps them solve problems and avoid conflict, until they are around 15. And while girls’ capacity to be empathic increases steadily over time, teen boys actually show a temporary decline, between ages 13 and 16, in ‘affective empathy”, which is the ability to recognize and respond to others’ feelings. The WSJ article explains: “The decline in affective empathy among young teenage boys may spring at least partly from a spurt during puberty in testosterone, sparking a desire for dominance and power, says the study in Developmental Psychology. Boys who were more mature physically showed less empathy than others.” Thank goodness, the boys tend to get back on track by their late teens.
So what does this mean for parents? It means that you can stop taking it so personally when your son is crazily insensitive to you and your feelings and/or can’t seem to stop himself from arguing with you at every turn. This is not to say that you have to accept this behavior, but knowing that he actually may not be able to help it can help you move from a screaming and yelling mode to a calmer and more instructive mode when dealing with him. You can set limits on his ability to express his anger or frustration, knowing that he may not be able to turn it off completely. Easier said than done, but knowing this information can help you remember to be the level headed parent versus losing your temper and matching him taunt for taunt.
Check out the full WSJ article here, which also gives parents tips on building empathy in children from an early age. News we can use!