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Relationship between empathy and friendship development in adolescence and how DLD affects it

Van den Bedem, N., et al. (2022). Interrelation between empathy and friendship development during (pre)adolescence and the moderating effect of developmental language disorder: A longitudinal study. Social Development. 2019;28:599–619

Key terms in this paper:

  • Empathy: The ability to share and understand other people’s feelings, and the willingness to react to their emotions

  • High quality friendships: Contain more positive elements, such as support, intimacy, trust and fewer negative elements like jealousy and conflicts.

  • Prosocial behaviour: When a person performs acts of kindness and compassion without expecting any benefits in return

Aim of the paper:

Previous research shows that high-quality friends can help a child build their empathy skills. Having empathy skills is important for making friends, and maintaining friendships, during childhood and adolescence.

Children with communication challenges tend to experience difficulties with building friendships. Furthermore, friendships are an opportunity for children to learn about others’ emotions. As such, having less friends could mean that children have less opportunity to develop their empathy skills and prosocial behaviour.

Research has shown that children with DLD tend to report lower quality of friendships than typically developing children. However, this might change and improve during adolescence.

  • This paper’s first aim was to study how empathy and the quality of friendships impact one another as children develop social and emotional skills.

  • This study measured three types of empathy: affective (sharing the emotions of others); cognitive (understanding the emotions of others, even if different to theirs); and prosocial motivation (the willingness to act on these empathetic feelings).

  • This paper’s second aim was to study whether DLD impacts the relationship between empathy and quality of friendships.

What was found:

The relationship between empathy skills and friendship quality was found to be the same in children with and without DLD. As such, the following two findings apply to both groups:

  1. Cognitive empathy and prosocial behaviour predicted positive friendship quality

  2. Affective empathy was linked with both positive and negative friendship quality

Children with DLD reported less positive friendship aspects (e.g., sharing secrets with their friend) and more negative ones (e.g., feeling controlled by their friend). They also reported lower empathy levels at younger ages. This was especially the case with girls. However, socialising with other children increased their prosocial motivation. In the group of children with DLD, the children with more communication challenges had the lowest quality friendships.

What does this mean?

Cognitive empathy (understanding the emotions of others) may be related to better quality friendships. Children with DLD may have greater difficulty creating quality friendships because of the challenges they may have with understanding less ‘obvious’ emotions in others. This tends to include pride, guilt, or shame.

Affective empathy (sharing the emotions of others) was linked to negative friendship quality. This could be explained by the overwhelming feelings experienced when creating friendships at young ages. Potentially, this is more challenging for sensitive children.

Children with DLD did appear to benefit from socialising with other children. This suggests that teachers, parents and caregivers should allow children with DLD to spend free time together with their peers. This will likely help them improve their social-emotional skills. Although children with DLD have lower levels of friendship quality and empathy in general, there is a very positive message to take home from this paper. It is that children with DLD are still able to create friendships and develop their empathic skills further if the right opportunity and time are offered.

Where can I read this paper?

This paper is open access, which means everyone can read it. Please click here to find the full paper.


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