Stress, Empathy and Positive Behavior

Coping with stress helps teens behave with empathy

(RxWiki News) If your teenager is having trouble coping with stressful situations, it can have an impact on how well they treat others.

A recent study by a University of Missouri human development expert looked at the interaction of empathy, coping with stress, and behavior toward others in young teens.

Behaving prosocially, or in a way that benefits others, comes from a teen’s ability to effectively cope with stress and experience empathy. On the other hand, being unable to cope with stress can lead to aggressive and impulsive behavior.

"Teach your child different ways of coping with stress"

Dr. Gustavo Carlo, the Millsap Professor of Diversity in the MU Department of Human Development and Family Studies led the study of 1,557 students aged 12-15 years in Valencia, Spain. 

Through a survey, the researchers measured the students’ feelings toward others, their past behaviors, their emotional stability and how they manage stress.

The ability to manage stress came from the students’ use of different coping methods. Two kinds of coping methods were studied, problem-focused and emotion-focused. 

Problem-focused coping is a method that attempts to get rid of the source of the stress. A teen who uses problem-focused coping to reduce worry about an upcoming test would probably decide to study more, making the test less stressful.

Emotion-focused coping has to do with venting, avoiding the issue, or distracting from the issue. This method can be effective when the person has no control over the event, like when parents divorce.

Dr. Carlo found that teens who could choose the appropriate coping method for an event were good at regulating their emotions and managing stress. Teens who were able to cope with stress had more concern for others, and performed prosocial behaviors like volunteering and helping friends. 

“Teaching children constructive and effective coping skills can promote empathy and good problem-solving,” Dr. Carlo said.

“Once kids are able to use their coping skills effectively, then they will be more apt to be considerate of other people's feelings, sympathize with others, and successfully solve problems. If not, they will be more apt to be self-centered and aggressive.”

This study was published in June online in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences. Funding support was provided by a Visiting Scholar Fellowship from the Universitat de Valencia and by an I&R&D project grant of the Ministry for Science and Technology. No conflict of interest was cited.

Review Date: 
August 8, 2012