Teens in more secure family relationships show more empathy to their friends

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Close family bonds can be a source of strength, not just for parents and their children, but for a child’s friends as well. A new study finds teens who have more secure family relationships end up showing empathy to their friends during tough times. Moreover, friends tend to seek out these teens when they need help with difficult issues.

Researchers from the University of Virginia say secure family attachments reflect on close relationships in an emotionally balanced, coherent, and valuing way. These ties make young teens more empathic overall as they mature into young adults. The study also finds young teens who did not have secure family relationships during adolescence could still “catch up” and display more empathy toward their close friends as they mature.

“Our findings showed that teens who were more secure in their family relationships at age 14 provided greater empathic support to their friends at ages 16, 17 and 18, and they were consistently able to provide that support over time,” says postdoctoral fellow Jessica Stern in a media release. “Teens who were less secure in their family relationships at age 14 showed lower empathic support for friends in early adolescence, but their empathic abilities grew over time. What’s especially interesting is that close friends also sought out more support from securely attached teens.”

Teens who get enough support ‘pay it forward’

Study authors recruited a diverse group of 184 adolescents (86 boys and 98 girls) from seventh and eighth-grade classes in the Southeastern United States. At 14 years-old, each teen responded to interview questions examining their relationships. Researchers considered teens who described their relationships as supportive and said they valued those bonds to have more secure connections than other children.

Between the ages of 16 and 18, these teens then nominated their closest friend and the pairs participated in a six-minute task where each teen helped their best friend through a problem. Study authors recorded and then studied these interactions.

The results suggest that there’s a strong connection between teen who have secure attachments at home and their ability to support others who are important to them. The results also show that, during this four-year period of adolescence, teens develop the ability to seek help from others and generally look to their most secure friends for assistance.

“Investing in the quality of teens’ family relationships early in adolescence may be important for building empathy and positive interactions with peers,” Stern adds. “Parenting programs, family therapy when needed, and school-based interventions that help young teens feel safe and supported in their relationships with adults—not only parents but teachers, mentors, and extended kin—may equip teens to ‘pay it forward’ in their empathy and care for others.”

The findings appear in the journal Child Development.

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