New study: Teens with secure family relationships bring more empathy to peer conversations

Source: News release by the Society for Research in Child Development

Teens’ ability to empathize – to understand others’ perspectives and emotions, and to care for their wellbeing – is an important contributor to their relationships, including with friends.

Prior research shows that teens who have more secure family relationships report higher levels of empathy for others, but little research examines whether teens with more secure family relationships actually show greater empathy when observed in real-life interactions with peers, or whether their empathic capacities show different patterns of growth over time.

A new study – by researchers at the University of Virginia – tested whether teens’ secure, supportive family relationships at age 14 related to their ability to provide their friends with empathic support across adolescence and into early adulthood.

Findings indicate that secure attachment – reflecting on close relationships in an emotionally balanced, coherent, and valuing way – predicts teens’ ability to provide empathic support to their close friends.

“What’s especially interesting is that close friends also sought out more support from securely attached teens,” said Jessica Stern, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia.

Related: The room of a teenage boy, a look at attachment parenting with teens

While having secure family relationships at age 14 predicted greater empathy with peers across adolescence, those teens who did not have secure family relationships in early adolescence showed a pattern of catching up, increasing their empathy toward close friends as they developed.

This study is among the first to examine associations of attachment with the development of empathic support using longitudinal methods and observations of empathic support for friends across mid-adolescence.

The findings were published in the journal Child Development. This research was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute of Mental Health.

The study featured a sample of 184 adolescents (86 males, 98 females) recruited from a public middle school (7th and 8th grades) in suburban and urban populations from the southeastern United States. Adolescents in the study were 58% Caucasian, 29% African American, 8% mixed race or ethnic, and 5% other identity groups.

In the current study, teens at age 14 responded to an interview about their attachment relationships, unlike most prior studies which used self-report measures of attachment style and empathy. Teens who described their attachment relationships as supportive, who valued those relationships and reflected on them with coherence and emotional balance, were rated as more secure.

Related: How to heal attachment with your teen

At ages 16, 17 and 18, teens and their nominated closest friend participated in a video-recorded, 6-minute task in which teens helped friends deal with a problem they were facing. Friends’ bids for support, as well as teens’ ability to provide empathic support, were coded from videos of this task.

The findings suggest a strong association between a teen’s having a secure attachment – or perspective on attachment relationships as supportive – and the development of the capacity to provide empathic support to close friends across a 4-year period of adolescence.

Results also suggest that friends’ support-seeking develops alongside teens’ ability to deliver empathy, with support-seeking helping empathy to develop and empathy fostering support-seeking from friends as well.

“Investing in the quality of teens’ family relationships early in adolescence may be important for building empathy and positive interactions with peers,” Stern said. “Parenting programs, family therapy when needed, and school-based interventions that help young teens feel safe and supported in their relationships with adults – not only parents but teachers, mentors, and extended kin – may equip teens to ‘pay it forward’ in their empathy and care for others.”

Bedtime together, beautiful and attached

IMAG00863My daughter and I stopped bedsharing a few months ago, just before her 2nd birthday. She was excited to move out of the daybed we shared in her room and into her own toddler bed.

Even though we’ve shifted away from bedsharing, bedtime still remains for us a wonderful time of connection. Sometimes I hold her and sing to her, which usually puts her to sleep before the first song is over. Most of the time, we lie together in her bed. She’ll play with my hair and cuddle up against me.

Lately, as her vocabulary and her brain continue to grow and develop, she’s been talking a lot as we lie together. She often talks about times when she was sad and frequently repeats a story about a time when I was out at the store and she was home with my husband: “I wanted you and you weren’t there, and I was crying.”

I believe this comes up often at bedtime, because it’s a time when she feels a need for comfort and knows she is safe. She can share a sad memory while knowing that I’m there for her at that moment.

I’ll listen to her story and acknowledge that it was a really upsetting time. Then I’ll remind her that in this moment she has me and I explain that now, when sadness is over, our emotions change and feeling sad is temporary. I reinforce that I am there to comfort her when she needs me.

Even though she’s no longer a newborn with an intense physiological need for me to hold her, bedtime can still be a scary time or a sad time if a child is alone. I love being able to be with her at this time and to let this be something positive and happy. While I don’t sleep with her in her bed, she still refers to it as “Mommy and me’s bed.”

When she wakes in the morning, she finds me sleeping in the daybed in her bedroom. She’ll walk over, and I’ll lift her up into bed. We’ll snuggle together until we’re ready to wake up. It’s the best part of my day and the best way to wake up. I love that I’m one of the first things she sees in the morning and that, even half-asleep, she knows that she just has to walk a few steps to find me and to feel that comfort and love. It’s beautiful to see how our sleep situation has evolved but is still a way for us to stay connected and attached.

An Adoptive Father’s Epiphany

Editor’s note: Today’s post is by John Brooks of Marin County, California, USA, author of The Girl Behind the Door, a memoir of his parenting journey with an adopted daughter whose attachment wounds went unnoticed by the professional community until it was too late. Prior to his daughter’s death, John was a senior financial executive in the broadcast and media industry. Now he devotes his time to advocating for adoptive families, mental health activism and working with teenagers. Learn more at his blog, Parenting and Attachment.

john brooksI’m an adoptive father. I knew my life experience was different from my daughter, Casey’s, adopted from Poland more than 20 years ago, but I had no idea how profoundly different we were until I was compelled by tragedy to take a brutally hard look at the world of the adopted child.

My journey began more than six years ago. Casey was preparing for college. We’d had a big fight one weekend. Parents argue with their teenagers. But the next morning I woke to a note: “The car is parked at the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m sorry.” Casey jumped and disappeared into San Francisco Bay along with my life and dreams.

Drowning in grief, I wrote, searching for answers. Why did she do it? What did everyone miss? What could we have done differently? It became a published book. I learned about the traumatic, lifelong effects of the separation of mother and child, a primal wound that we stepped into like all adoptive parents.

Some say that a birth mother giving up a child is like an amputation. As much love and attention as we showered on Casey, could it ever make up for that loss? It’s a void that for so many adopted children is ignored and misunderstood; some may not see it themselves. Oftentimes loving them enough isn’t enough. Babies are not blank slates who simply adapt as many believe.

Birth trauma can be deeply damaging. How could it not be? It takes parenting that acknowledges the child’s loss and the effect on her behavior. Reacting to rages with punitive discipline can backfire. Adoptive families need qualified specialists who know what questions to ask and how to ask them. And adoptive parents need to know that some day their child may need to search and reunite with her birth parents, even if it’s painful.

The bargain we make as adoptive parents – one we learned too late – is that once we go down this road, we take on a job that is harder than we’d ever imagined. It requires us to parent in a way that we may not be comfortable with, to give without receiving much in return. It can leave us exhausted and isolated from other parents. But make no mistake, I remember the great times – they were many – and despite Casey’s loss, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world to have been her dad.

Letters, Labyrinths, and Love

This post was originally published on

At 27 weeks into my pregnancy, I started my letter to him.

I didn’t yet know I was carrying a boy. My husband and I had picked out names, but we decided to wait until the birth to know the sex of our baby. So, I addressed my letter to “Dearest Baby Glenn,” and the words poured forth.

I’ve always loved to write. I love the romance between pen and paper, dreams and words. Ideas and letters mingle and merge in me. At my Mormon baptismal celebration, my beloved Aunt Kris presented me with a journal and encouraged my eight-year-old self to write. I’ve filled over fifty books since. I find writing a deeply spiritual path.

Writing to my son added a profound dimension to this practice. I try to imagine how time will bend on an unbeknownst future day when he will read my words. What will it be like for him to see into his early years and into his mother’s heart?

I’ll always remember where I was when I began writing his letter.

Before I knew I was pregnant, I had accepted a teaching job at a private, bilingual school in Bogota, Colombia. My husband and I decided to stay the course of the adventure even as our first child grew inside of me.

I remember the sunlight pouring through my floor-to-ceiling classroom windows. I gazed at the Andes Mountains. My round belly inspired me. I placed my hands on my body and imagined the growing being within. The call to begin writing to this child came from a fiercely impatient muse. My heart was expanding with a love that my mind could not fathom. I closed my work inbox, opened up a blank Word document, and I began to type, saved it using and left it on my desktop.

“Dearest Baby Glenn,

Soon I will know if I should address these reflections to Maline or to Taber. However, on the most fundamental level it doesn´t matter. You matter. My love for you matters. Your development, health, strength, inner spirit, beauty, and wonder matter.

I can´t express how much I love you. You are now a permanent part of my heart. I think of you each day and night. I feel you kick and dance and move with joy. I love you, dear baby. You are my child, and I promise to always give you my best efforts and energy as I move into motherhood. … ”

I continue to add to this growing 85-page letter.

I detail milestones, magical moments, and the struggles and hopes of our little family. I share with my son, Taber, my vision for the world. I explain why we choose to spend time outside rather than in front of a television. I write about the day he drew a circle with a crayon, proudly saying, “Moon!”

Composing this letter helps me mother with a deeper sense of wonder, grace, and gratitude. Putting into words the prayers and hopes I have for this child, reminds me of what matters most in life. I want Taber to love this world and her people. I want him to grow up to be courageous, kind, and strong. Most importantly, I want him to know he is loved. Deeply. Truly. Fiercely. Freely.



In Roman mythology, Theseus volunteers to kill the evil Minotaur responsible for the deaths of many brave Athenian youth. The hero enters a dangerous labyrinth to accomplish this task. His beloved Ariadne gives him a sacred thread so he can find his way out of the confusing maze. May our words as parents be revivifying and inspiring to our children. May they carry sacred power and become like Ariadne’s thread offering guidance when our children navigate life’s challenging labyrinths.

Theseus emerges victorious. May our children do the same.

Creative Parenting

The AP Month Blog Event is here! All month we will be featuring posts that best demonstrate this year’s theme of “Parenting Creatively: The Art of Parenting.” We hope you enjoy this post by Amy Ahart, who blogs at Moonpie’s Nap.

“In spite of the six thousand manuals on child raising in book stores, child raising is still a dark continent, and no one really knows anything. You just need a lot of love and luck–and in the end, of course, courage.” – Bill Cosby

Today is Mother’s Day, and the babes are still asleep. I am stealing a few moments in the peace of the dawn, watching their eyelids flutter, one on either side of me, cozy in the nest. This morning I have “creative parenting” on my mind, prompted by a post from API.

My husband and I never set out to parent “attachment” style. I didn’t even know it existed until my first daughter was one year old. Creativity and intuition defined my parenting style in those early days. I was just a new mom with a strong internal guiding force telling me what to do and what my baby needed.


I tried to read the advice in the baby books, but at the end of the day my child and my intuition held all the answers I was seeking. Creativity and intuition guided me those first few hours to follow her hunger cues and to let her soothe herself at my breast. Creativity and intuition guided me to bring her into our bed where we could all catch up on precious fleeting sleep. Creativity and intuition guided me to swaddle her close to my chest through three long months of reflux-induced colic.

One thing I was lacking in those early days with my firstborn child was confidence and courage. When I finally discovered API, it gave me the reassurance I needed to keep parenting in the way my baby needed me to parent, the way she needed me to be her mom, the way I needed to be a mom. I realized there are tons of AP parents out there just like me. I also realized this “attachment” approach is an age-old practice, rooted in science, nature and psychology.

My girls will wake up soon, here next to me full of smiles and giggles. That is the most precious gift any mother could receive on Mother’s Day. I will continue to give them all I have. As a mother, I pledge my heart that every moment of every day that I will strive to be attuned to their needs. That is my gift I will give to them; that this day and every day, I promise to parent them with creativity, intuition, confidence and courage.

A Day To Live Again


Oh little boy.

If I could just pick one day in my life to live over and over again, it may well be today.

Why not? It was a perfect day with you.

We played in the ocean. You “swam” with my hands on your body offering support, guidance, and safety. You loved the waves! You tasted the salt water on your lips with wonder. The sunlight sparkled in your big, blue eyes. May you always nurture your connection to the outdoors and honor the mother ocean, a vital source of life on this earth.

When we got home, you laughed with me as you played tag around the brown arm-chair in the front room.  Deep, full, belly laughs emerged and your new teeth sparkled. You ducked behind the chair and popped out with a “Boo!” as if it was the most amazing thing in the world.  I bow in gratitude to this miracle of loving you play and find magic in the common place. That chair will never the same in my memory. A door outside of time opened up as we played. Our laughter built a bridge unifying and connecting us to all mothers and children across the generations. May you always relish the deep, life-affirming laughter found in the most simple of games.

After lunch, we went outside and you chased the cat clicking your tongue as you hear me do that when I call her. This reminds me to be ever mindful that you watch me with care. May I always speak, walk, act, and love with a gracious respect for all life.

As the sun set, we played in the back of your dad’s blue Ford pick-up truck. I drummed out a song on the steel bed. You spun around and around a few times dancing. A vast, immense sky of stars emerged above you. You are my star. My child of wonder.

Later, cuddled next to me, I surrendered to the beyond-this-world-tenderness of you snuggling into my arms and nursing to sleep.

If I could live any day in my life over again, it would certainly be a day when you breastfed. I love the holy kindness that comes from the way you suckle milk from my body. It nourishes your every cell. It’s completeness incarnate. Joy incarnate.

I just love you little one. My sweet boy. My courageous, funny, go-down-the-slide-yourself little guy. May you always know how precious you are to me. May you always trust that I’ve got your back. May you know how much your mother loves you, all the way through the marrow of her bones. Because I do.

No matter what happens in this world. No matter what happens at all. These days are holy and precious beyond money, beyond gold, beyond anything. I love offering you the best of my time and energy. I honor each stage of your early development. How blessed we are to spend these days together. It’s perfection through and through. My heart fills with gratitude to your daddy who works long hours in the week to make this possible. We want to give you the best. We choose a life of simple things on the material level and offer you the deepest grace we can muster in the realm of what matters most.

If I could live one day again in my life—this precious, fleeting mysterious, challenging, and holy life— it would be a day like today with you.

Sleep well angel.


Never Stop Holding Hands

I remember when my children were newborns, they used to grasp my finger when I laid it in their tiny palms. A tight little grasp that seemed to say, “This is what I need. I want you here with me, and I’m not letting go.” I know it wasn’t cognitive; it was a reflex. A sign of normal brain functioning that slowly disappeared as they matured.

Though the reflex faded, the hand-holding didn’t. I continued to put my hand in theirs every opportunity I could. Maybe I was still checking to see if the reflex was still there. In some way, I think it was. You put your hand into a child’s hand and they can’t seem to help holding it back.

I held my kids’ hands when I bounced them on my lap, when they took their first steps, and when we toddled around the yard. I held their hands during doctor appointments, going to various classes, and meeting new people. I even held their hands when they didn’t need to be held. Like when they’d ride on my back in the soft carrier and I’d criss-cross my arms to grasp their little hands around my sides. Or when we were just sitting next to each other on the couch reading or watching a movie, or sometimes when we’d sit across from each other in a restaurant. There was never a time when I didn’t enjoy having their hands in mine.

Over the years and in a variety of situations, I have held my children’s hands gently, safely, respectfully, kindly, lovingly, firmly, and habitually.

Above all, purposefully. A mother’s touch provides children with an instant sense of belonging. Our embraces say, “You are here with me, and this is exactly where you belong.”

Most recently, I held my kids’ hands as we navigated the parks at Disney World. In these busy parks, I never worried about where they were or that they might run off and disappear into the sea of bodies that filled park walkways. Because my kids never stopped seeking my hands. My hand-hold with each of them was their point of security in an extremely stimulating, constantly noisy, constantly busy environment. My hand, as it always has been, was their connection to safety. It was where they belonged, and it was where they wanted to be. Walking hand in hand.

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