Contemporary Family Therapy

, Volume 37, Issue 2, pp 142–152 | Cite as

Adolescents’ and Parents’ Expression of Empathy: A Social Neuroscience Perspective

  • Jillian M. Hawks
  • Trent S. Parker
  • Ronald Werner-Wilson
  • Nichole Huff
  • Joann Lianekhammy
Original Paper


Empathy is a critical component of emotional and moral development, which makes it an important construct to study within adolescence. However, few studies have examined the role of brain activity in the expression of empathy during adolescence. In order to add to the literature, the current study utilized social neuroscience theory as a lens to explore the relationships between brain activity, empathy, and parent–adolescent communication. 15 adolescent–mother–father triads participated in conversations while their brain activities were monitored through the use of an EEG. Their conversations were coded for empathy and positive and negative affect, and alpha asymmetry scores were created from the EEG data. After calculating Pearson correlation scores to test the relationships among empathy, alpha asymmetry, and affect, several statistically significant relationships were identified. For example, adolescents’ expression of empathy was positively correlated with their alpha asymmetry score. In addition, fathers’ empathic expression was negatively related to adolescents’ alpha asymmetry, therefore indicating a greater presence of alpha asymmetry in the right prefrontal cortex in adolescents. These findings suggest important links between brain activity, parent–adolescent communication, and adolescents’ empathic expression. Clinical implications and recommendations for future research are discussed.


Adolescents Empathy Brain activity Alpha asymmetry Parents 


  1. Adams, G. R., & Berzonsky, M. D. (2003). Blackwell handbook of adolescence. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. doi:10.1002/9780470756607.indsub.Google Scholar
  2. Bakeman, R., & Gottman, J. M. (1986). Observing interaction: An introduction to sequential analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/cbo9780511527685.Google Scholar
  3. Brunelle, N., Tremblay, J., Blanchette-Martin, N., Gendron, A., & Tessier, M. (2014). Relationships between drugs and delinquency in adolescence: Influence of gender and victimization experiences. Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse, 23(1), 19–28. doi:10.1080/1067828X.2012.735488.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bylund, C. L., & Makoul, G. (2005). Examining empathy in medical encounters: An observational study using the empathic communication coding system. Health Communication, 18(2), 123–140. doi:10.1207/s15327027hc1802_2.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Carr, L., Iacoboni, M., Dubeau, M. C., Mazziotta, J. C., & Lenzi, G. L. (2003). Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans: A relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic areas. Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences USA, 100, 5497–5502. doi:10.1073/pnas.0935845100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Chow, C., Ruhl, H., & Buhrmester, D. (2013). The mediating role of interpersonal competence between adolescents’ empathy and friendship quality: A dyadic approach. Journal of Adolescence, 36(1), 191–200. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2012.10.004.CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Coan, J. A., & Allen, J. J. B. (2004). Frontal EEG asymmetry as a moderator and mediator of emotion. Biology Psychology, 67, 7–49. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2004.03.002.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Davidson, R. J. (1995). Cerebral asymmetry, emotion, and affective style. In R. J. Davidson & K. Hudgahl (Eds.), Brain asymmetry (pp. 361–387). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  9. de Kemp, R. T., Overbeek, G., de Wied, M., Engels, R. E., & Scholte, R. J. (2007). Early adolescent empathy, parental support, and antisocial behavior. The Journal of Genetic Psychology: Research and Theory on Human Development, 168(1), 5–18. doi:10.3200/GNTP.168.1.5-18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. de Wied, M., van Boxtel, A., Matthys, W., & Meeus, W. (2012). Verbal, facial and autonomic responses to empathy-eliciting film clips by disruptive male adolescents with high versus low callous-unemotional traits. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 40(2), 211–223. doi:10.1007/s10802-011-9557-8.CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Decety, J., & Lamm, C. (2006). Human empathy through the lens of social neuroscience. The Scientific World Journal, 6, 1146–1163. doi:10.1100/tsw.2006.221.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dennis, M., Simic, N., Agostino, A., Taylor, H., Bigler, E. D., Rubin, K., & Yeates, K. (2013). Irony and empathy in children with traumatic brain injury. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 19(3), 338–348. doi:10.1017/S1355617712001440.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Diamond, L. M., Fagundes, C. P., & Butterworth, M. R. (2012). Attachment style, vagal tone, and empathy during mother–adolescent interactions. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 22(1), 165–184. doi:10.1111/j.1532-7795.2011.00762.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Dymond, R. E. (1949). A scale for measurement of empathic ability. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 14, 127–133. doi:10.1037/h0061728.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Eisenberg, N. (2000). Emotion, regulation, and moral development. Annual Review of Psychology. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.51.1.665.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Eisenberg, N., & McNally, S. (1993). Socialization and mothers’ and adolescents’ empathy related characteristics. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 3(2), 171–191. doi:10.1207/s15327795jra0302_4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Eisenberg-Berg, N., & Mussen, P. (1978). Empathy and moral development in adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 14(2), 185–186. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.14.2.185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Enticott, P. G., Johnston, P. J., Herring, S. E., Hoy, K. E., & Fitzgerald, P. B. (2008). Mirror neuron activation is associated with facial emotion processing. Neuropsychologia, 46, 2851–2854. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2008.04.022.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Fair Worthen, M. (2012). Gender differences in delinquency in early, middle, and late adolescence: An exploration of parent and friend relationships. Deviant Behavior, 33(4), 282–307. doi:10.1080/01639625.2011.573421.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Gottman, J. (1997). Raising an emotionally intelligent child. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.Google Scholar
  21. Gottman, J. (2001). Meta-emotion, children’s emotional intelligence, and buffering children from marital conflict. In C. D. Ryff & B. H. Singer (Eds.), Emotion, social relationships, and health (pp. 23–40). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195145410.001.0001.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gottman, J. M., & Krokoff, L. J. (1989). Marital interaction and satisfaction: A longitudinal view. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57, 47–52. doi:10.1037/0022-006x.57.1.47.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Gottman, J. M., McCoy, K., Coan, J., & Collier, H. (1996). The specific affect coding system for observing in marital and family interaction. In J. M. Gottman (Ed.), What predicts divorce: The measures. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  24. Gutsell, J. N., & Inzlicht, M. (2012). Intergroup differences in the sharing of emotive states: Neural evidence of an empathy gap. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7(5), 596–603. doi:10.1093/scan/nsr035.CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Harmon-Jones, E. (2003). Clarifying the emotive functions of asymmetrical frontal cortical activity. Psychophysiology, 40(6), 838–848. doi:10.1111/1469-8986.00121.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Harmon-Jones, E. (2004). Contributions from research on anger and cognitive dissonance to understanding the motivational functions of asymmetric frontal brain activity. Biological Psychology, 67, 51–76. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2004.03.003.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Harmon-Jones, E., & Allen, J. B. (1997). Behavioral activation sensitivity and resting frontal EEG asymmetry: Covariation of putative indicators related to risk for mood disorders. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 106, 159–163. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.106.1.159.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Harmon-Jones, E., Gable, P. A., & Peterson, C. K. (2010). The role of asymmetric frontal cortical activity in emotion-related phenomena: A review and update. Biological Psychology, 84, 451–462. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2009.08.010.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Harmon-Jones, E., & Peterson, C. K. (2009). Electroencephalographic methods in social and personality psychology. In E. Harmon-Jones & J. S. Beer (Eds.), Methods in social neuroscience (pp. 170–197). New York, NY: Guilford.Google Scholar
  30. Heller, S., Robinson, L. C., Henry, C. S., & Plunkett, S. W. (2007). Gender differences in adolescent perceptions of parent–adolescent openness in communication and adolescent empathy. Marriage & Family Review, 40(4), 103–122. doi:10.1300/J002v40n04_06.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Huff, N. (2013). Positive affect, hemispheric lateralization, and relational problem-solving: A mixed-methods exploration of parent–adolescent communication. Theses and DissertationsFamily Sciences. Paper 6. Retrieved from
  32. Huff, N., Werner-Wilson, R., & Kimberly, C. (2014). Electrical brain activity, family functioning, and parent–adolescent conflict communication. Contemporary Family Therapy, 36(3), 409–416. doi:10.1007/s10591-014-9307-5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Jasper, H. H. (1958). The ten–twenty electrode system of the International Federation. Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 10, 371–375. Retrieved from.
  34. Keiley, M. K., & Seery, B. L. (2001). Affect regulation and attachment strategies of adjudicated and non-adjudicated adolescents and their parents. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 23(3), 343–366. doi:10.1023/A:1011187117365.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kelley, K., Lepo, A. W., & Frinzi, C. (2011). Empathy and nursing education from mirror neurons to the experience of empathy: 21st century nursing education. International Journal for Human Caring, 15(4), 22–28. Retrieved from
  36. Keysers, C., & McKay, L. S. (2011). How to make social neuroscience social. Psychological Inquiry, 22(3), 210–216. doi:10.1080/1047840X.2011.567960.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kimberly, C., Werner-Wilson, R., Parker, T., & Lianekhammy, J. (2014). Alpha to omega: A neurological analysis of marital conflict in a pilot study. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 36(1), 83–92. doi:10.1007/s10591-013-9296-9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. King, D. B., Mara, C. A., & DeCicco, T. L. (2012). Connecting the spiritual and emotional intelligences: Confirming an intelligence criterion and assessing the role of empathy. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies31(1), 11–20. Retrieved from.
  39. McMahon, S. D., Wernsman, J., & Parnes, A. L. (2006). Understanding prosocial behavior: The impact of empathy and gender among African American adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39(1), 135–137. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2005.10.008.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. Mehrabian, A., Young, A. L., & Sato, S. (1988). Emotional empathy and associated individual differences. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues, 7(3), 221–240. doi:10.1007/BF02686670.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Meyer, M. L., Masten, C. L., Ma, Y., Wang, C., Shi, Z., Eisenberger, N. I., & Han, S. (2013). Empathy for the social suffering of friends and strangers recruits distinct patterns of brain activation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(4), 446–454. doi:10.1093/scan/nss019.CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Mind Media, The Netherlands.
  43. Robins, R. W., Fraley, R. C., & Krueger, R. F. (2007). Handbook of research methods in personality psychology. New York: The Guilford Press. doi:10.1111/j.1744-6570.2008.01133_6.x.Google Scholar
  44. Rogers, C. R. (1980). A way of being. New York: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  45. Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9(3), 185–211. doi:10.2190/DUGG-P24E-52WK-6CDG.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Schulman, G. L. (1985). Treatment of the disturbed adolescent: A family system approach. International Journal of Family Therapy, 7(1), 11–24. doi:10.1007/BF00924018.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Shomaker, L. B., & Furman, W. (2009). Parent-adolescent relationship qualities, internal working models, and attachment styles as predictors of adolescents’ interactions with friends. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26(5), 579–603. doi:10.1177/0265407509354441.CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Siegel, D. (2010). The mindful therapist: A clinician’s guide to mindsight and neural integration. New York, NY: Mind Your Brain Inc.Google Scholar
  49. Siegel, D. (2014). Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain. New York, NY: Tarcher.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Steinberg, L. (2008). A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk taking. Developmental Review, 28, 78–106. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2007.08.002.CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  51. Stotland, E. (1969). Exploratory investigations of empathy. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 4, 271–314. doi:10.1016/s0065-2601(08)60080-5.Google Scholar
  52. Sullivan, T. J., Deiss, S. R., Cauwenberghs, G., & Jung, T. P. (2007). A low-noise low-power EEG acquisition node for scalable brain–machine interfaces. In Microtechnologies for the New Millennium (pp. 659203–659203). International Society for Optics and Photonics.Google Scholar
  53. Sutton, S. K., & Davidson, R. J. (1997). Prefrontal brain asymmetry: A biological substrate of the behavioral approach and inhibition systems. Psychological Science, 8, 204–210. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.1997.tb00413.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Tullett, A. M., Harmon-Jones, E., & Inzlicht, M. (2012). Right frontal cortical asymmetry predicts empathic reactions: Support for a link between withdrawal motivation and empathy. Psychophysiology, 49(8), 1145–1153. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8986.2012.01395.x.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  55. Van der Graaff, J., Branje, S., De Wied, M., & Meeus, W. (2012). The moderating role of empathy in the association between parental support and adolescent aggressive and delinquent behavior. Aggressive Behavior, 38(5), 368–377. doi:10.1002/ab.21435.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  56. van Honk, J., & Schutter, D. J. L. G. (2006). From affective valence to motivational direction: The frontal asymmetry of emotion revisited. Psychological Science, 17, 963–965. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01813.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  57. Viera, A. J., & Garrett, J. M. (2005). Understanding interobserver agreement: The kappa statistic. Family Medicine, 37(5), 360–363.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. Wacker, J., Chavanon, M.-L., & Stemmler, G. (2010). Resting EEG signatures of agentic extraversion: New results and meta-analytic integration. Journal of Research in Personality, 44, 167–179. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2009.12.004.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Wagaman, M. (2011). Social empathy as a framework for adolescent empowerment. Journal of Social Service Research, 37(3), 278–293. doi:10.1080/01488376.2011.564045.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Waldinger, R. J., Hauser, S. T., Schulz, M. S., Allen, J. P., & Crowell, J. A. (2004). Reading others’ emotions: The role of intuitive judgments in predicting marital satisfaction, quality, and stability. Journal of Family Psychology, 18, 58–71. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.18.1.58.CrossRefPubMedCentralPubMedGoogle Scholar
  61. Werner-Wilson, R. J., Lianekhammy, J., Frey, L. M., Parker, T. S., Wood, N. D., Kimberly, C., et al. (2011). Alpha asymmetry in female military spouses following deployment. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 23, 202–217. doi:10.1080/08952833.2011.604534.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Whittle, S., Yap, M. H., Yücel, M., Fornito, A., Simmons, J. G., Barrett, A., & Allen, N. B. (2008). Prefrontal and amygdala volumes are related to adolescents’ affective behaviors during parent–adolescent interactions. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105(9), 3652–3657. doi:10.1073/pnas.0709815105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Yoo, H., Feng, X., & Day, R. D. (2013). Adolescents’ empathy and prosocial behavior in the family context: A longitudinal study. Journal of Youth and Adolescence,. doi:10.1007/s10964-012-9900-6.PubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jillian M. Hawks
    • 1
  • Trent S. Parker
    • 1
  • Ronald Werner-Wilson
    • 1
  • Nichole Huff
    • 2
  • Joann Lianekhammy
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Family SciencesUniversity of KentuckyLexingtonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Youth, Family, and Community SciencesNorth Carolina State UniversityRaleighUSA

Personalised recommendations