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Raising Boys to Experience Empathy

Study shows supportive parents are likely to develop empathy in their offspring.

Key points

  • Studies show men are more narcissistic than women. These qualities undermine healthy relationships.
  • Suppressed and unrecognized feelings for boys and men can lead to depression, anger, and aggression.
  • Parents have an important role in raising boys who can access their emotions and experience empathy.
Source: Arek Socha / Pixabay
Source: Arek Socha / Pixabay

In the world of intimate partner abuse, most perpetrators are men and most survivors are women. This has been the case since we have developed as a patriarchal society. In studies of narcissism and gender, men were shown to be more narcissistic than women. The influence of some narcissistic qualities contributes to intimate partner abuse. It’s time we pay attention to raising our children, and boys in particular, to develop empathy that forges a greater likelihood of enjoying healthier relationships.

Narcissism and Gender

In a 2015 study that took an in-depth look at narcissism and gender, the research found that men are more narcissistic than women. Narcissism has its good and bad elements. It has been recognized as improving self-esteem, providing emotional stability, and influencing leadership qualities. On the downside, narcissism is known to cause interpersonal dysfunctions that interfere with sustaining lasting healthy relationships, unethical behavior, and aggression (Grijalva and colleagues). These negative aspects of narcissism are very relevant to the existence of intimate partner abuse.

Unfortunately, boys and men are at risk of being saddled with the expectation to suppress vulnerable feelings from an early age. They cannot appear weak. Pushing down feelings to be acceptable is a tremendous pressure to live by. Eventually, anger can show up as a defense against vulnerable feelings that could be percolating underneath but don’t get recognized or expressed. The underlying feelings could be frustration, fear, hurt, sadness, or vulnerability. Anger can be a cover for male depression as well. Men expressing feelings of anger are often seen as socially acceptable except when it’s too big, too hurtful, too damaging, or lethal. Yet, it can be from a place of unrecognized pain that the anger emerges.

Fostering Empathy: Research shows parents have an important role.

Empathy is the capability to emotionally understand what other people feel. Essentially, it is putting oneself in someone else's position to understand and feel to some degree what they are feeling. To have the ability to empathize, we need to be able to feel and regulate our feelings to be emotionally present with others. Feeling and empathizing are critical to having healthy relationships.

An important 25-year study shows that empathy is passed from parents to teens and their future offspring (Stern and colleagues, 2024). The Kliff/Vida study tracked for over 25 years 184 adolescents (99 female and 85 male)–from age 13 well into their 30s. The study shows:

  • Parents who express empathy toward their teens can give them the start of developing the skills themselves.
  • Adolescents who show empathy and can support their friends—in all probability will become supportive parents.
  • Supportive parents, in turn, promote empathy in their children.

As parents paying attention to helping boys develop an emotional capacity, we can make an enormous difference in boys' and men’s lives.

As a parent who raised a son, I was vigilant in making sure he would develop to be strong and empathic. Often, I would suggest that he put himself in the shoes of the other person to see both sides of a situation. I was reassured when he was 10 years old and was told by his fifth-grade teacher who happened to be male, “Your son is the first student I’ve had who realizes teachers have feelings, too.”

Helping boys access their emotions allows them to feel connected and empathic towards others. When you have the capacity for empathy, you can have healthy relationships where everyone benefits.



Grijalva, E., Newman, D. A., Tay, L., Donnellan, M. B., Harms, P. D., Robins, R. W., & Yan, T. (2015). Gender differences in narcissism: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 141, 261-310.

Stern, J.A., Bailey, N.A., Costello, A.F., Hellwig, J.M., Allen, J.P. 2024. "Empathy across three generations: from maternal and peer support in adolescence to adult parenting and child outcomes." First published: 22 May 2024.

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