Empathetic parenting the key to keeping kids on track, new study finds

Picture: Getty Images
Picture: Getty Images 

A new study has found teenagers with empathetic parents are less likely to commit serious crimes, such as stealing. 

The study, by Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, assessed data from 4,000 children between the ages of 12-17, followed over a four year period. It found the teenagers who felt their parents were empathetic, not just supportive, were far less likely to engage in delinquent behaviour.

Published in the Journal of Moral Education, it also found that children of empathic parents showed greater empathy towards their peers and a greater ability to acknowledge and understand the feelings of others.

The research relied on data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children and aimed to build upon previous research linking parental support to reduction in antisocial behaviour. 

Taking a greater focus on the role empathy played in this, research author - forensic psychologist Professor Glenn Walters, assessed two interview sessions where teens were asked about both the level of parental support they experienced, and their own development of empathy. 

Asked to rate statements such as "I trust my parents' and 'I talk to my parents', they were then asked to rate whether 'I try to empathise with my friends' or 'I try to make others feel better'.

When the teens reached 16 or 17, they were then asked which, if any, of 17 'delinquent' acts they had engaged in within the last year, with examples including graffiti and using force to obtain money from someone.

Professor Walters said parents who made their children feel as if they empathised with them played a 'small but significant role' in their child's development of empathy in their teenage years.

"Empathy in youth also appears to have the power to mediate the negative association between perceived parental support and future juvenile delinquency," he said.

"What the current study adds to the literature on the parental support–delinquency relationship is a mechanism capable of further clarifying this relationship. The mechanism, according to the results of the present study, is empathy."

Professor Walters also noted factors such as self-esteem and social interest also played a role and recommended future research should assess empathy from a younger age.