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Can a Parent Have Too Much Empathy?

Sensitive parents: the problem with feeling too much.

Key points

  • Intuitive parents with strong emotional connections to their kids may experience vicarious visceral distress.
  • Empathy can morph into mutual contagion where parents catch teens’ pain, becoming a source of retransmission.
  • Parents’ ability to manage their own feelings impacts teens’ emotions and ability to regulate themselves.
Source: Pepifoto/Istockphoto
Source: Pepifoto/Istockphoto

Though we hear a lot about the effect of parents on children’s development, parenting, like other close relationships, is a reciprocal interaction—not a one-way street. Children with difficult challenges, such as executive function deficits, can tax any parent’s equilibrium. Parents of teens with such issues are often overwhelmed and under increased stress. Repeated experiences of frustration and defeat in the context of a mounting problem can lead any parent to feel rejected, helpless, and increasingly anxious. When, on top of this, there is a particularly strong empathic emotional connection or identification with the child, parents are at risk of falling into a common counterproductive parenting pattern fueled by excessive empathy, worry, and guilt.

Gabriel, 16, was a good kid, bright and well-liked. He struggled at school with executive function deficits and anxiety. Anxiety made it harder for him to think and focus, while the impact of repeatedly feeling incompetent created more anxiety.

Gabriel was attached to his mom, but irritable and rejecting when she asked him about homework, yelling at her to leave him alone and accusing her of not trusting him. He pretended everything was under control, but secretly felt stupid and ashamed.

Source: Fizkes/Istockphoto
Source: Fizkes/Istockphoto

Using procrastination, avoidance, and cover-up, he desperately tried to escape failure and exposure.

At times, when agitation and panic spilled out, everyone’s instinct was to rescue him, for example, by letting him leave school to go home.

This cycle of pileup and inevitable crash was painfully obvious to Gabriel’s mom, who experienced insidious anxiety and dread on her son’s behalf that was uncannily similar to his feelings. Though informed, intuitive, and a good mom, she became increasingly cautious and tentative to avoid upsetting and discouraging Gabriel.

What went wrong here?

Intuitive parents with a sensitive emotional connection to their kids can experience a vicarious visceral awareness of teens’ distress. Tuning in to teens is essential for parents to sense what teens are going through and for teens to feel seen (Morris et al., 2017).

Source: Nadeshda1906/Istockphoto
Source: Nadeshda1906/Istockphoto

But empathy can go awry, as in this example, morphing into a mutual contagion in which parents “catch” teens’ pain and become a source of retransmission.

When this happens, parents, in effect, mirror teens’ disabling feelings and temporarily lose access to their own executive functions—leaving no one with sufficient distance, flexibility, perspective, or equanimity to help.

Parents’ ability to manage their own feelings impacts teens’ emotional state and their ability to regulate themselves directly and indirectly, through the climate at home (Morris et al., 2017). Further, this impact is accentuated with emotionally reactive kids (Morris et al., 2017).

Gabriel’s mom was sensitively linked to Gabriel’s anxiety and dread of failure, experiencing these feelings on her own and on his behalf, and colluding in anxious avoidance. This dynamic developed into a pattern of cautious, overprotective parenting—a common problem afflicting worried parents.

The problem with overcautious, overprotective parenting

Source: Lemono/Istockphoto
Source: Lemono/Istockphoto

Fearful of triggering Gabriel, his mom tiptoed around him. Paradoxically, using kid gloves had the opposite effect—unconsciously communicating a lack of faith and validating his view of himself as weak, defective, and bad. This approach also left Gabriel’s emotions in charge, empowering a cycle of pessimism and irritability followed by guilt and shame.

In an attempt to protect Gabriel from feeling exposed and despondent, his mom did not speak the truth they both knew. However, this perpetuated the ever-increasing burden of lies and isolation he had to bear. Further, from a skill-building point of view, rescuing Gabriel by avoiding hard topics, or letting him leave school during panic attacks, rewarded avoidance by giving him instant relief. Alternatively, when escape isn’t available, it creates incentive and opportunity for teens to learn new strategies—breaking the cycle of avoidance.

Summary of helpful parenting approach and mindset

Approaching—rather than avoiding—problems using a confident, matter-of-fact, respectful demeanor and time-limited, planned approach helps desensitize teens to their fear of anxiety (the cause of panic). The accumulated experience of doing this expands teens’ capacity to tolerate feelings rather than have meltdowns.

A calm and balanced emotional climate provides the backdrop teens need to stretch themselves without becoming flooded or avoidant—challenging teens within the limits of their capacity (not too little and not too much). When Gabriel’s mom was able to be forthright, courageous, and calm while facing difficulties with him, she appealed to and elicited a higher level of functioning. Through their interactions, Gabriel’s mom gave him the chance to experience himself as more capable and cooperative, relieving shame and guilt.

Source: Huzaifa Niazi/Pixabay
Source: Huzaifa Niazi/Pixabay

Vicarious transmission of feelings in closely linked parents and teens can be a risk factor for unhealthy contagion, but can also give parents an edge in impacting teens positively when parents are able to “hold their own.”

In this example, the mom transmitted the tune of a more regulated state of mind to her son. And, through staying grounded and steady, she improved their relationship—parents’ most protective resource for teens.


Morris, A.S., Criss, M.M., Silk, J.S., & Dr., B.J. (2017). The Impact of Parenting on Emotion Regulation During Childhood and Adolescence. Child Development Perspectives, 11, 233–238.

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