Academic journal article Family Relations

Adolescents' Perception of Family System Characteristics, Parent-Adolescent Dyadic Behavior, Adolescent Qualities, and Adolescent Empathy

Academic journal article Family Relations

Adolescents' Perception of Family System Characteristics, Parent-Adolescent Dyadic Behavior, Adolescent Qualities, and Adolescent Empathy

Article excerpt


Carolyn S. Henry, David W. Sager, and Scott W. Plunkett**

Adolescents' perceptions of variables at 3 levels of the family system were examined in relation to 4 dimensions of adolescent empathy using self-report questionnaire data from 149 adolescents. Hierarchical multiple regression models showed that gender, family cohesion, parental support, self-esteem, and communicative responsiveness were related to empathic concern; age, gender, parental support, and self-esteem were related to personal distress; age, parental induction, and communicative responsiveness were related to perspective taking; and gender and communicative responsiveness were related to fantasy. Implications for practice are presented.

An important focus of prevention and intervention with families is understanding how strengths within the family unit have the potential to promote the development of adolescent social competence. Adolescent social competence, or the ability to function effectively in the family and broader social context (Peterson & Leigh, 1990), encompasses both instrumental and expressive social competence (Baumrind, 1972). Instrumental social competence refers to actions or qualities that enhance the ability to perform life role functions, including ambition, objectivity, and self-discipline. Expressive social competence describes affective traits or interpersonal skills such as caring, nurturance, and empathy that enhance the quality of interpersonal and family relations and promote the well-being of society (Baumrind, 1978).

Research and practice based upon an understanding of the relationship between the family context and adolescent social competence have been restrained by (a) a greater focus upon instrumental social competence than expressive social competence, (b) a tendency to focus on adolescent expressive social competence in the context of intimate relationships in contrast to other interpersonal interactions, and (c) a trend toward examining only one level of the family system (e.g., the overall family system, parent-youth dyadic subsystems, adolescent qualities) in relation to social competence (Peterson & Leigh, 1990). Therefore, this study was designed to explore how adolescent perceptions of three levels of family systems components (the overall family system, parentadolescent dyadic subsystems, adolescent qualities) and selected demographic variables relate to four dimensions of adolescent empathy, an area of expressive social competence. These results can be used by family life educators and family therapists to expand their understanding of how prevention and intervention at multiple levels of the family system hold potential for promoting the development of empathy in adolescents.


Empathy is an aspect of expressive social competence associated with the quality of close personal relationships, effective parenting, and the potential to assist others in the broader community. Aspects of empathy are important because they relate to a greater ability to establish and maintain friendships (Hay, 1994), increased satisfaction in intimate relationships (Davis & Oathout, 1987), improved quality in family relationships (Guerney, 1988), more child-based and less stereotypic parenting strategies (Brems & Sohl, 1995), decreased risk for abusive parenting (Bavolek, 1984), increased willingness to assist others during crises (Oliner & Oliner, 1988), and the development of empathy in one's offspring (Eisenberg & McNally, 1993; Kestenbaum, Farber, & Stroufe, 1989).

Research on empathy during the past decade has advanced, in part, due to an increased emphasis upon exploring multiple dimensions of the concept (Eisenberg & McNally, 1993), including a range of cognitive and emotional responses to the situations and experiences of others. …

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