Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Is It Normal for Teenagers to Lack Empathy?

Is the slow maturation of the prefrontal cortex correlated with empathy?

I received an email from a reader this weekend that read as follows:

I recently read a post that was labeled Study Shows Teenage Brain Lacks Empathy. It was followed by this: “If you ever sense teenagers are not taking your feelings into account, it's probably because they're just incapable of doing so.” I completely disagree with this and think that if your teenage lacks empathy for a long duration, this is considered a warning sign.

Mr. Uche, please tell me what your thoughts are on the subject of empathy in teenagers.

Kind Regards,

Ms. D


Dear Ms. D,

Empathy is a trait we are all born with, because we are social creatures and have evolved to survive and thrive in small communities. Social conditioning determines if teenagers will learn to listen to their empathetic voice (consciousness) or otherwise.

I know that there are a significant number of studies that indicate the prefrontal cortex is the last to develop and doesn't become fully formed until a person is in his or her mid-20s. As a result of theses studies, the popular interpretation is that due to an immature prefrontal cortex, teenagers are more apt to make irrational decisions, and they have a poor sense of empathy.

I disagree with this popular interpretation. The truth is that no one has an empirically researched explanation about why the prefrontal cortex waits to become developed until a person's mid-20s. Yes, there have been studies conducted to support this interpretation, but I have found the sample size and population studied to be too limited to reach a definitive conclusion. Nevertheless, this hasn't stopped people like myself from coming up with our own interpretations.

My interpretation goes like this: “The prefrontal cortex is last to develop because it allows the average person to focus on self-mastery before becoming fully conscientious about the welfare of their respective communities.”

This doesn't mean that during the period of self-mastery a teenager lacks empathy towards his fellow human beings. On the contrary, most teenagers I have worked with have a lot of empathy towards people in their lives, including people they don't like. During the teen years, teenagers are concerned with becoming productive members of their respective communities. In their maturation from childhood, they typically would have come to realize that in order to become valued members of society, they need to acquire skills valued by their respective communities.

This is what makes the adolescent years turbulent for some people, because belief systems influenced by social values come into play, and some people have a difficult time picking a skill set and achieving competency. Teenagers typically become self-absorbed during their adolescent years, but it is not due to having no empathy. It is because they are going through a process of self-discovery and what may seem like an unwillingness to engage may actually be a sign of having little to no confidence to engage on an emotional level.

Typically, most people become more conscientious by their mid-20s. This is also a time when most skilled adults find themselves in leadership positions in the workplace. It would appear that the prefrontal cortex becomes more fully developed to accommodate the ability to use one's skills for leadership roles that require solving problems on a bigger scale than previously accustomed to.

For example, becoming very good at solving mathematical equations and teaching a classroom of students to solve the same mathematical equations require the same foundational knowledge with the latter being more complicated. During the school years, a math major needs to understand his math to pass tests, tutor one-on-one, and perhaps even apply his skills to a small project. But becoming a full-time math teacher requires developing a good rapport with every student in the classroom, factoring in different learning styles, abilities, and levels of motivation with the goal of helping all students understand the material.

Teenagers are capable of being empathetic. When a lack of empathy is observed, it is usually a result of detrimental beliefs and values that the teenager has internalized over the years due to a multitude of variables.

What are your thoughts? All agreements and disagreements are welcome. I read all the comments.

More from Ugo Uche
More from Psychology Today