Parents still matter: Examining mediators and confirming intergenerational transmission of empathy during children’s adolescent years



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Development during adolescence includes rapid changes biologically, socially, and cognitively, with empathy being a key refinement in the domain of social cognition (Preston & de Waal, 2002). Empathy is the psychological process by which an individual is able to respond to the experiences of others through perception (Hodges & Myers, 2007). For adolescents, empathy allows for a greater understanding and ability to navigate the social world around them. Adolescence is often characterized as a period of changing social contexts, with relationship dynamics shifting from decreased time spent within the family and increased time spent in forming relationships outside of the home (Brown & Larson, 2009). Although adolescent relationship dynamics are being reevaluated, parents continue to be a salient source of influence throughout adolescent development (Steinberg & Silk, 2002), and possibly a notable influence on adolescent empathy development. This study uses longitudinal data from the Carolina Sibling Study, 45 families with one younger adolescent between 11-13 years old (Mage=12.15 years; girls=19) and an older adolescent (Mage=14.55 years; girls=18), up to four years older than the younger adolescent, as well as one participating parent (Mage=42.34 years; women=36). Each adolescent completed assessments of empathy and parent attachment, and parents completed assessments of empathy and adolescent disclosure. These measures were used to examine the transmission of empathy from parents to their adolescent children one year later, with parent attachment and adolescent disclosure as potential mediators. Multilevel modeling was used to account for nesting (i.e., adolescent sibling dyads) within the data. Intergenerational transmission was found for empathic concern and perspective taking, along with parent empathic concern indicative of attachment and disclosure. These findings provide evidence for parents’ continued influence in the lives of their adolescent and their empathy development.



Empathy, Transmission, Adolescent, Parents