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Does Your Teen Lack Empathy?


teenage boy showing empathy

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” Empathy is a social skill that begins in infancy, and studies show that genuine empathy  can be expressed by children around age two. Adolescence is a time in a young person’s life that is filled with new experiences, physical and emotional maturation, and a newfound need for autonomy. The growth and transformation that occur during one’s teenage years are immense. As is true with maturing through any stage of development, there are inevitable growing pains. Though many teenagers look like adults, their brains are not fully developed until at least age twenty-five. The last area of the brain to develop is the pre-frontal cortex (area of the brain that reigns rational thought, impulse control, executive planning, etc.). Therefore, teenagers innately rely on the amygdala (area of the brain that governs one’s emotions, impulsivity, emotional behavior, and motivation) to process external stimuli. It can be difficult to tell if your teen truly lacks empathy or simply chooses to avoid exhibiting empathy. 

Warning Signs

If you are unsure if your teenager lacks empathy, consider the following warning signs, provided by educational psychologist, Michele Borba:

  • Is usually insensitive to the needs of others (e.g., does not aid someone that clearly needs help)
  • Does not show sympathy for people or characters who are suffering (e.g., does not care about someone else’s grief, misfortune, troubles, etc.)
  • Is inconsiderate and/ or does not think about other people’s feelings 
  • Does not compliment others
  • Is intentionally cruel to animals
  • Does not listen to others when they are talking, which is indicative of a lack of interest in other people’s ideas, feelings, situations, etc.

Please note, not all teens that exhibit one or more of the above warning signs inevitably lacks empathy. It is important to bear in mind that teenagers are characteristically selfish, as they are tasked with individuating and self-discovery. Not all teenagers that exhibit behaviors indicating a lack of empathy truly lack empathy. Dealing with a seemingly self-absorbed teen can be incredibly difficult, emotionally draining, exhausting, and sometimes feel impossible. There are, however, several ways to support your teenager in cultivating and strengthening his or her empathy. When in doubt, it may be advantageous to pursue further guidance and consult a professional to ensure there are no underlying mental health ailments at play. 

For Information and Support

Seeking help is never easy, but you are not alone! If you or someone you know needs mental health treatment, we strongly encourage you to reach out for help as quickly as possible. It is not uncommon for many mental health difficulties to impact a person for the long term. The earlier you seek support, the sooner you and your loved ones can return to happy, healthy, and fulfilling lives.

Our admissions team is available to answer any general questions regarding mental health issues, treatment, and/or specific questions about the program at Pacific Teen Treatment and how we might be able to help your family. We can be reached by phone 24/7 at 800-531-5769. You can also contact us via email at

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