New Research: How Our Teenage Friendships Affect Our Parenting Style

written by KATIE CLINE
teen friendships build empathy"
teen friendships build empathy
Source: Megan Kemp
Source: Megan Kemp

A new Child Development study shows that empathetic interactions between close teenage friends may provide a “training ground” for their future parenting style. The research also suggests that a mother’s empathy for their teenage child directly correlates to the level of empathy the teenager shows their friends. Additionally, no matter the caregiver, when teenagers were able to practice the act of providing care for friends, they became more empathetic caregivers in the future. In short, teen friendships help build empathy.

Studied across three generations, from mother to teen to child, researchers from the University of Virginia followed nearly 200 adolescents and their mothers over the course of 25 years—from when the children were 13 years old through their mid-30s, when many became parents themselves. I spoke to Dr. Jessica A. Stern, the lead researcher on the project, and asked her to explain a bit more about what this means for us as individuals and as parents.


Jessica A. Stern, Ph.D.

Dr. Jessica Stern is a developmental psychologist whose work examines close relationships, parenting, and child social-emotional development. Jessie earned her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, with a focus on attachment across the lifespan. She is currently a research fellow in the Dept. of Psychology at the University of Virginia.

Empathy in Teenage Friendships

How do we know if our teenage friendships were ‘empathetic’?

“How did you feel spending time with your friends? Did you feel judged and shut down, or understood and accepted? When you were going through a hard time, did you have at least one friend you could reach out to for help and support? As a teenager, having empathetic friendships may have made you feel a sense of belonging, trust, and emotional safety.”

Why is it important to have had empathetic friendships as a teenager?

“When you’re part of a supportive peer group, there are opportunities to practice giving and receiving support, strengthening the ‘muscle’ of empathy through building positive relationships beyond the family.”

What would a lack of empathy look like?

“For both mothers and teens, a lack of empathy might involve not paying attention to what the other person is saying as they share their problem, interrupting, using a negative or hostile tone, not offering any comfort or support, or clearly misunderstanding the other person.”

What can a parent do if they notice their teen is having friendship trouble (i.e., frenemies or toxic friendships)?

“It’s normal to have friendship struggles, especially as a teenager. Parents can normalize their teen’s struggles and validate the emotions that naturally come up around difficult relationships: It’s OK to feel angry, sad, humiliated, rejected, or lonely. I can tell your friends are important to you, and I’m sorry they treated you this way,” said Dr. Stern.

Parents can support teens in confronting their friend in a mature and direct way—for example, by helping the teen practice what they might want to say and talking through the specific behaviors that they want to change or stop. If there’s a pattern to the negative interactions, parents can support teens in setting kind but firm boundaries, and if the teen chooses to, ending the friendship. It’s important that parents respect their teen’s autonomy and not try to control or ‘fix’ the situation for them (unless adult intervention is necessary for the teen’s safety).”

Source: Canva

Empathy in Parenting

For those of us who weren’t blessed with an ‘empathetic’ caregiver, is there no hope for our current or future children?

“There’s always hope when it comes to breaking negative intergenerational cycles. In our research, it’s clear that peers play just as big a role in adolescents’ development as parents do. You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends—so choose people who model the kind of empathy and social skills you’d like to cultivate in yourself.”

How do we know if we’re an empathetic parent?

“Self-reflection is key. If your child comes to you with a problem or is feeling sad or anxious, notice how you respond. What does your child’s emotion elicit in you? If there’s a tendency to react with judgment, aversion, anxiety, or a desire to dismiss what they’re feeling, notice that and take a breath.”

How can we become more empathetic?

“​​Start with self-compassion. It’s human to have negative feelings, especially when raising a child or teenager. See if you can gently shift into taking your child’s perspective. From the seat of self-compassion, it’s easier to extend that compassion to the child in front of you.”

And if that doesn’t work?

“Seeking therapy [is] also [a] powerful way to shift negative patterns and strengthen supportive caregiving skills that you might not have experienced from your own parents. Programs like Circle of Security support parents specifically to develop skills like empathy so they can respond sensitively to the needs and emotions that underlie their children’s behavior.”

If my teenager is struggling with empathy, does that mean it’s all my fault?

“Teens struggle with empathy for many reasons, and it’s not necessarily an indictment of our parenting. Empathy develops over time and with practice, so it’s important to give teens opportunities to strengthen their social skills— for example, by encouraging them to reach out to a struggling friend, care for a younger sibling, mentor younger students, or engage in service to their community. Other research has shown that educational experiences like experiential learning programs and reading fiction can increase empathy.”

Is Dad off the hook?

“In the first generation of parents [studied], we looked at how mothers’ empathy toward their teens predicted teens’ empathy for their close friends. [But] in the second generation (when teens of both genders grew up and became parents themselves), we found that empathy skills developed in teenage friendships were important predictors of supportive parenting 10 years later for both mothers and fathers. Because of socialized gender norms, it’s common for girls to develop empathy skills slightly earlier than boys, which is what we found in our study. But boys (and men, including fathers) are equally capable of empathy, especially if they have good role models, supportive friends, and positive reinforcement from people they trust and respect.”