Experiencing traumatic events as a child is predictive of higher levels of depression in adulthood, and also predicts higher levels of aggression, violence, personality disorders, as well as several physical health problems. Causality is not always clear, as trauma, genetics, and environmental factors intertwine in complex ways. But it is clear that traumatic events can, and do, have starkly negative impacts on peoples' lives.
But there are few things in life that have universally unidirectional effects. In other words, even bad things can have a silver lining. I've heard countless patients sit on my couch and reflect that having survived the things they did has given them the ability to understand how other people can hurt. "After what I experienced from my mother, I could never inflict that kind of pain on any other person, much less my children—I know exactly how much it hurts, and how those scars affect you," one patient told me. Research now supports this, finding that people who experienced childhood trauma have a greater ability to empathize with others.
In groundbreaking research published in the journal PLoS One, New York and Cambridge researchers explored what relationship childhood traumas had with the ability to empathize as an adult. Greenberg, et al. conducted multiple studies using mTurk respondents to identify and examine how a childhood experience of trauma affected the results of different measures and factors of empathy. Empathy, the ability to recognize, respond to, and even "feel" the feelings of others, can be broken down into three main components:
- Affective empathy, where we feel, in our gut and heart, the feelings that others are, or may, be experiencing. When we see others suffering, we "feel" pain with them.
- Cognitive empathy, where we can imaging ourselves into the shoes of other people and their experiences. A significant component of this is "perspective-taking" and the intellectual exercise of thinking through what it must be like, to be that other person experiencing what they are.
- Social skills/sympathy, whereby our feelings of empathy motivate us towards social action and engagement, perhaps to alleviate the suffering of others.
In this study, the researchers used two different measures of empathy, administering to them to two large samples, via electronic testing. In the first study, the researchers found that of 387 participants, 309 had experienced childhood trauma, and 78 had not. In the second study, of 442 participants, 348 disclosed childhood adversity and traumas, and 94 did not. About 65 percent of the overall participants were female, and over 75 percent of the participants were white, which is one of the few limitations of the study, as some research suggests a disproportionate impact of traumas with minority status.
In the first study, the researchers found that childhood experience of trauma strongly predicted higher levels of affective empathy, but not cognitive empathy. Interestingly, different types of trauma experiences had different effects, with the death of a parent or family member correlating with increased cognitive empathy, while other forms of trauma, including sexual and physical abuse, predicted higher levels of affective empathy.
In the second study, utilizing a different instrument to assess empathy, the researchers found significant differences for trauma survivors, related to both affective empathy and cognitive empathy, with those who experienced childhood trauma scoring higher on both the emotional and perspective-taking aspects of empathy. Again, experiencing the death of a family member had unique effects on increasing empathy, and the severity of childhood abuse was overall predictive of a greater effect on empathy in adulthood.
Thus, the research suggests that different types of traumatic experiences may affect people differently—and that the more severe these traumas were, the more likely the person is to have higher levels of empathic concern and caring for others, as an adult. In both studies, the age at which the traumatic experiences occurred had no statistical impact on the development of adulthood empathy.
The findings in this research confirm past research that demonstrated that people who have experienced adversity in life are more likely to demonstrate compassion and support to others who are suffering. People who have survived hard things are more willing to reach out and help others who are struggling. In part, this current research helps us to explain why, and how that effect occurs. Surviving childhood trauma increases our ability to feel what others feel, and helps develop our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others.
In one powerful finding in the Greenberg, et al. study, they found that those who experienced childhood trauma did not demonstrate higher levels of personal distress as adults, compared to those who had trauma-free development and upbringing. The authors suggest "it appears that the transition from childhood to adulthood and the process of posttraumatic growth may have alleviated feelings of personal distress. Therefore, empathy may be an ‘end-product’ of posttraumatic growth that is longer lasting than the initial personal distress that is expected to be felt immediately after a trauma."
As a clinician, this research helps us to help patients who suffered in childhood to integrate those experiences into their life and identity. Those experiences helped shape who they are as an adult, both the good and the bad. They increase our experience of emotional struggles as adults, AND they increase our ability to recognize and feel the pain of others. This can also help us to empathize with those people who don't show empathy for others, and seem untouched by their pain—those people may have been blessed with safe and protected childhoods that insulated them from having to develop empathy as a component of overcoming their own pain. So, when they walk past that suffering person, it is because they were lucky enough to be able to avoid pain themselves. These days, with the social media and cultural wars aflame, it helps to be able to understand how others can seem so uncaring, not to forgive them, but to be able to empathize with in a way that might, one day, help them to see this in themselves. Childhood trauma creates wounds and scars, but also creates pathways for the development of empathy, compassion, and caring.
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