There’s a moody, ornery, self-absorbed bear living in my house.
He moved in a year or so ago, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what he’s done with my sweet, thoughtful son, Nathaniel.
I’ve also spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out where, as a parent, I went astray—how it’s possible that I raised this scowling, eye-rolling teenage boy.
But then I read a recent study that let me off the hook. Well, sort of. Published in the journal Developmental Psychology, the study found that adolescent boys’ lack of empathy is biological. In other words, it’s not my fault. And it’s really not Nathaniel’s, either.
Still, more than anything I’ve read of late, the research captured the push and pull that he and I struggle with almost daily. Most conversations initiated by Nathaniel these days start with, “Can you . . .” and end with a request for me either to feed him or drive him somewhere. At least those are full sentences. If I start a conversation, no matter how innocent the question—“How was school?” or “How did your chem test go?” or “How was basketball practice today?”—the response I’m likely to get is a shoulder shrug or a curt “Fine,” with no elaboration.
The study, co-authored by a team of Dutch researchers, tracked some 500 teenage boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 18 for six years and found that girls’ “cognitive empathy”—the ability to consider other people’s perspective—begins to rise at age 13. Boys, on the other hand, don’t gain this ability until about age 15.
Even more telling, the study noted, boys between the ages of 13 and 16 actually show a temporary decline in “affective empathy,” the ability to recognize and respond to other people’s feelings. This decline may be due, at least in part, to a rise in testosterone, which can increase the desire for power and dominance and decrease emotional empathy.
There is, however, good news. Apparently, if I can make it through the rough patch, this period will pass and my kind, lovable son will come back to me. His affective empathy will magically restore itself as he gets a little older, according to the study.
Meanwhile, I’m determined not to give up or give in. Just because I now know that Nathaniel’s behavior is due more to nature than to nurture, it doesn’t mean that I should stop trying to parent him. In fact, better parenting is arguably what’s required. For me, this begins with exercising more patience than I often feel. I know that Nathaniel is a deeply sensitive and caring person who can be overwhelmed by his feelings. Indeed, I’m certain that some days he lashes out at me because he’s been working doubly hard at school to keep his feelings in check. I’ve thus been trying—with mixed success—not to take it personally and overreact when he’s rude.
I don’t want to give him free reign, either, just because he’s a teen. It’s my job to remind him—in the same way that I told him over and over again when he was little to say “please” and “thank you” until it became automatic—that he simply can’t treat people poorly, even when he’s feeling lousy. We’ve also talked about why we sometimes treat the people we love the most in life the worst.
It can be hard to know, with all of Nathaniel’s grunting and glowering, if any of this is really sinking in. But from time to time, I catch a glimpse of his warm, charming self: during a family night out to dinner and a movie, when he is being funny or silly and making us all crack up, or whenever I can coax a quick hug from him. And I am confident that there will be much more of this to come, at least by the time he is 17.
That’s a mere 414 days away. But, hey, who’s counting?