In adolescence, critical social skills that are needed to feel concern for other people and understand how they think are undergoing major changes. Adolescence has long been known as prime time for developing cognitive skills for self-control, or executive function.
"Cognitive empathy," or the mental ability to take others' perspective, begins rising steadily in girls at age 13, according to a six-year study published recently in Developmental Psychology. But boys don't begin until age 15 to show gains in perspective-taking, which helps in problem-solving and avoiding conflict.
Adolescent males actually show a temporary decline, between ages 13 and 16, in a related skill—affective empathy, or the ability to recognize and respond to others' feelings, according to the study, co-authored by Jolien van der Graaff, a doctoral candidate in the Research Centre Adolescent Development at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Fortunately, the boys' sensitivity recovers in the late teens. Girls' affective empathy remains relatively high and stable through adolescence.
The riptides are often noticeable to parents. Susan Burkinshaw has tried to cultivate empathy in her two teenage sons, 16 and 18, since they were toddlers, encouraging them to think about others' feelings. Yet one "went through a period in eighth grade where he was just a bear to deal with. He always had an attitude," says Ms. Burkinshaw, of Germantown, Md. "Then as quickly as it came on, it turned back off again."
The findings reflect a major expansion in researchers' understanding of cognitive growth during adolescence, according to a 2012 research review co-authored by Ronald Dahl, a professor of public health at the University of California at Berkeley. Researchers used to believe that both forms of empathy were fully formed during childhood.
Now, it's clear that "the brain regions that support social cognition, which helps us understand and interact with others successfully, continue to change dramatically" in the teens, says Jennifer Pfeifer, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Preliminary research in her lab also suggests cognitive empathy rises in teens. The discoveries serve as a new lens for exploring such teen behaviors as bullying and drug abuse.