Empathetic parents might produce well-balanced children who experience less depression, less aggression, and more empathy themselves, but to their own detriment.
A study done at the Northwestern University delved into the hidden costs of parental empathy. Researchers surveyed 247 pairs of parents and their adolescent children on how often and to what degree parents could understand their children’s feelings and respond with appropriate concern. They found that while the children of empathetic parents are better off physically and emotionally, the parents’ cells reveal chronic, low-grade inflammation. When their children suffer psychologically, empathetic parents’ immune systems take a hit.
A year later, the Northwestern team surveyed 143 pairs of parents and teenage children on parents’ empathy and children’s depression, took blood samples from the parents and introduced a bacterial component to study the immune response.
As their children’s depressive symptoms increased, so did empathetic parents’ inflammatory markers. The findings were consistent with previous research showing that caregivers of people with chronic illness develop chronic inflammation and elevated stress hormones over time.
The reason for this is that empathy requires us to push our own feelings aside to focus on someone else’s, an effort linked to increased stress and higher inflammation. Empathetic parents may also be more willing to sacrifice their own health for their children’s sake, forgoing things like sleep, exercise, and other activities that could mitigate the stress of caregiving.
Erika M. Manczak, a Northwestern psychology graduate student and the lead author of both studies found that family therapy often counsels parents on how to be more empathetic, given the enormous benefit to children. But if that emotional effort comes at a physical cost, parents need to be taught how to care for themselves too.
“Things like getting enough sleep, exercising, and reducing stress are all related to these types of immune processes,” Manczak told Quartz. “It’s not selfish for parents to make time for those things – it’s actually critical for their own mental and physical health.”