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The Importance of Empathy

EmpathyResearch suggests that low levels of empathy in adolescents may lead to higher rates of bullying behavior (Miller and Eisenberg, 1988). Empathy is generally defined as sharing and understanding another person’s emotions. Empathy has been widely studied and many researchers agree that it has two main parts (Davis, 1994). The first is perspective taking, or being able to identify with and understand other people’s perspective. The second is empathic concern, or being able to have concern or sympathy. In other words, youth who have high levels of empathy are able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, and understand why their actions can hurt that person.

Many bullies have a hard time understanding other people’s emotions, and research shows that the more a child can do this, the less likely they are to exhibit aggressive or violent behavior. This is especially true for boys (Gini et. al, 2007). The perspective taking aspect of empathy allows youth to understand other people’s reasons and motivations, and building concern for others allows them to realize the pain their actions may be causing.

Increasing empathy is not just important for youth exhibiting bullying behavior. Empathy in all youth means more children will step in and stop bullying behaviors before it can have negative consequences (Hoffman, 2001). To help your child learn empathy, talk with them about listening to their peers and paying attention to how others feel, and encourage your child to find ways to show their peers that they care about them. Help them understand other people’s perspectives by having them imagine times when they felt the same way or how they would feel if the situation were reversed.


Davis, M. H. (1994). Empathy: A social psychological approach. Boulder, CO, US: Westview Press.

Gini, G., Albiero, P., Benelli, B. and Altoè, G. (2007), Does empathy predict adolescents' bullying and defending behavior?. Aggressive Behavior, 33, 467–476. doi: 10.1002/ab.20204

Hoffman, M. L. (2004). Toward a comprehensive empathy-based theory of prosocial moral development. In Bohart A & Stipek D, (Eds.), Constructive & Destructive Behavior: Implications for Family, School, & Society (pp. 61–86). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Miller, P. A., & Eisenberg N. (1988). The relationship of empathy to aggressive and externalizing/antisocial behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 324–344.