The Benefits and Dangers of Highly Empathic Parenting
Children of empathic parents thrive. Parents don't. Here's what you can do.
Posted April 26, 2016 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Do you feel highly anxious when your child cries or even whines? Do you feel that having children has significantly increased your stress levels? Are you on high alert and worried about your child’s safety? Do people think you are overly cautious and reactive when it comes to your child?
Then you might be a highly empathic parent. Extremely attuned to your child, you notice the slightest change in the way she whines or cries. You cringe when she falls, and when she hurts herself, you literally feel her pain. Sometimes, the experience is more unbearable to you than it is to her. You can’t even fathom letting your child “cry it out,” even if that means you yourself suffer endless sleepless nights.
Highly empathic parents often think there's something wrong with them. Other people might chide you for being too much of a worry-wart or they may even suggest that you have an anxiety problem. You might wonder why other parents are relaxed and laid-back, while you feel overwhelmed and sometimes even burned out on parenthood.
The good news is that there is nothing wrong with you. In fact, research suggests your children are more likely to grow up both happier and healthier than other children. A new study shows that children of highly empathic parents thrive—they are psychologically and physically healthier and more balanced. This makes sense. After all, you've created a world for them in which they feel loved, safe, cared for, and attended to. And because you are so finely attuned to your child, you're probably selecting the right kinds of foods, environments, and experiences to suit their needs and temperament.
This study has some challenging news for you, however. On the one hand, the study shows that you have higher self-esteem and a greater feeling of purpose in life than other parents. On the other hand, as a highly empathic parent, you also may end up with higher inflammation levels—probably as a result of stress.
For one, you are hyper-vigilant, a trait people attribute to anxiety disorders but that, in this case, simply comes from deep empathy and concern. Hyper-vigilance, by making you highly attentive to and focused on potential dangers, can be taxing. If you're constantly in high-alert mode and cautious around your child, your system is in a constant state of “fight or flight” mode.
We know from research that a little bit of stress can help make us alert and focused. However, long-term stress can start to break down both our body and mind, impairing our immune function and cognitive skills like attention and memory. Constantly putting the best interests of your child(ren) before your own can also lead to exhaustion and burnout over time, as you ignore your own needs day after day.
So what can we do with this information? On the one hand, children of highly empathic parents thrive. On the other, you don’t. Even if you care first and foremost about your children’s well-being, they will obviously need you in the long run. So no matter what, you also have to find a way to be resilient in spite of your (great) parenting style.
Here's more good news: You too can thrive. In fact, research suggests that having high levels of empathy and compassion can actually be beneficial for you as well—strengthening your immune system, improving your psychological well-being, and boosting your health. Moreover, you forge positive and deep relationships with your child (and others) which, in turn, increase your well-being.
The secret to being a highly empathic parent that thrives is in cultivating your emotional resilience. Here are 3 research-backed steps to do so:
1. Tap into your calming response with breath.
To balance the stress response that happens when you are worrying about your child—the activation of your “fight or flight” (sympathetic) nervous system—learn to tap into your calming response, or the “rest and digest” (parasympathetic) nervous system. My research team and I studied combat veterans recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD, some of the most stressed individuals in our society, and found a very simple, very effective, and easy way to tap into that calming response: the breath.
Breathing and emotions are tightly intertwined: When you feel an emotion like anxiety, your breath becomes fast and rapid. When you are relaxed, it slows and deepens. Research by Pierre Philippot suggests that the reverse is also true: when we change our breathing, our emotions also change. When we slow and deepen our breath, we relax. When we inhale, our heart rate increases. When we exhale it decreases. Lengthening your exhales can help you calm down even more by slowing that heart rate.
The technique we researched with veterans (sudarshan kriya yoga) can also be learned through Project Welcome Home Troops (for veterans) or the Art of Living Foundation (for civilians). You can learn basic breathing techniques in yoga classes too (called pranayama).
2. Develop self-compassion.
As I discuss in my book The Happiness Track, dozens of studies by Kristin Neff now show that self-compassion is a powerful way to boost your emotional resilience, as well as your psychological health and well-being.
It involves treating yourself as you would treat a colleague or friend. Rather than berating, criticizing, or judging, thereby adding to your despair, you turn your empathy back on yourself. Neff herself first discovered the power of self-compassion in parenting her child with autism. In situations where she felt no control, she found immense strength through self-compassion.
Self-compassion has three components:
1. Be kind to yourself.
Because highly empathic parents might think there's something wrong with them, you might tend toward self-criticism. However, self-criticism is akin to self-sabotage. Instead, learn to change your internal dialogue. Speak with the positive words that you, especially as a highly empathic person, would use with a dear friend. Words of comfort and encouragement. Neff suggests the following kinds of phrases: “It’s okay that you failed; it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or bad at what you do,” “I believe in you and support you, and I know you can do it,” “I’d like you to try to make a change so you can be happier.”'
2. Remember everyone makes mistakes.
Knowing that everyone confronts failure sooner or later helps you be less critical and upset when it’s your turn. Try as hard as you may, you won’t be a perfect parent, and that’s OK. Nobody is. Understanding this simple fact can bring you relief.
3. Focus on mindfulness.
Mindfulness is being aware of and validating your thoughts and feelings, yet observing them with perspective and distance and without overidentifying with them. Instead of succumbing to a torrent of emotion, including anger at yourself, just observe the thoughts and feelings that come up as you would observe a storm from your window. Mindfulness does not mean suppressing or denying these feelings, but rather being present with them as they are. Neff suggests the following examples of a mindful approach to thoughts and feelings: “This is really hard right now,” “I’m sorry you are struggling,” and “This moment will pass.” Meditation can help develop this mindfulness skill.
3. Prioritize your alone time.
Even when we are around other people, our heart rate is higher. There is something very restorative about spending time alone. The separation from your child, while it may feel painful for highly empathic parents in particular, can also help you recover so you can be your best with him or her.
Whatever you can do to help calm your nervous system will be a gift both to you and your child. Whether it’s a walk in nature, a massage, a technology fast, reading a book, or taking an Epsom salt bath, do what it takes to help soothe your nerves.
As an empathic parent, you prioritize others' needs before your own. However, the activities mentioned above are not just ones you should do when you crash and burn. Practice them daily or at least weekly to help prevent burning out.
By taking care of yourself and fostering your emotional resilience, you will also model the same for your child. We can feel other people’s stress and anxiety. By nurturing our ability for calmness, centeredness, and relaxation, we are helping them feel even more secure than they already feel. In addition, we’ll enjoy the ride even more.
For more on how to tap into your emotional resilience, see my new book The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success (HarperOne 2016).
A version of this post also appeared on MindBodyGreen.