The Cost of Empathy: Why Bearing Your Child’s Emotional Load Wears You Down

If you’ve ever just sat with your child or teen while they were going through something difficult—validating their feelings and simply listening without judgment—you may have left feeling overwhelmed, sad, confused, or even angry yourself. Sometimes it can seem like your child’s emotions are contagious, leaving you with feelings that mirror theirs, despite the fact that the experience was theirs alone. It’s not surprising, considering that empathy, by definition, is not only about sensing other people’s emotions, but also having the ability to imagine what they might be thinking and feeling.

What exactly is going on? Why do we, as parents, often feel so sad, heavy, and drained after providing a shoulder to cry on or simply holding space for our children to process their painful experiences? Shouldn’t empathy—or more specifically, loving and bonding with our kids or teens—leave us feeling uplifted? Is there an explanation for why we so often feel exhausted and worn down physically after providing emotional, mental, or spiritual support to the people we love most? Actually, there is.

“There’s some really interesting research on the drawbacks to the parent, when they are empathetic,” explains Cognitive Psychologist Dr. Amy Moore. “Even though it shows amazing benefits for the kid, it also creates internal stress in the parent, which raises C-reactive protein levels and creates inflammation in the body. So it actually has a little bit of detrimental health effect to the parent when they are ultra empathetic.”

So how, as parents, can we provide support and empathy when our children and teens need us most, knowing that the emotional load could weigh us down too? 

“We’re not going to throw the baby out with the bath water,” says Dr. Moore. “We’re not going to say, ‘Well, I’m not going to be empathetic then because that’s detrimental to my health.’ We can do things that are going to counteract that stress response. We have to take really good care of ourselves as parents. So we have to make time for ourselves; any type of mindfulness practice, breathing, grounding, prayer or meditation. We have to make time for self-care so that it balances our efforts to show empathy to our family.” 

As Dr. Moore explains, the human body’s response to internal stress isn’t just about emotions; there’s a physiological response as well. Just as our bodies might respond to situations that require us to fight or flee for survival—increased heart rate, upset stomach, decreased appetite—so too does it respond to emotional stress. So the next time you’re empathizing with your child while they recount being bullied or your teen who is anguishing over being left out of that big sleepover with their friend group, don’t be surprised if you retreat to the couch feeling both mentally and physically drained. 

But as Dr. Moore points out, that’s not to say that you should stop empathizing with your child to avoid your own discomfort. While you can counteract any detrimental effects on your own well-being through a wide variety of self-care efforts, your child needs that empathy.

Besides, the benefits FAR outweigh the costs. 

“We know that children who are raised with empathetic parents are actually more emotionally secure and emotionally available as adults,” explains Dr. Moore. “There are tons of benefits to having an empathetic parent. We just had an interview with an anxiety specialist who talked about the importance of validating our kids’ emotions and holding space for their uncomfortable, negative emotions and not saying ‘Oh, don’t worry about that’ or ‘It’s not a big deal.’ When we can show empathy, when we can sit in those spaces with our kids and say, ‘Wow, I know that is so hard. I’m so sorry that you’re going through that,” it goes a long way for positive mental health, coping skills, and the ability to regulate your emotions. Part of regulating your emotions is being able to name them, so the whole idea of empathetic parenting includes helping kids identify what it is that they’re really feeling and accept that.” 

Looking for specific suggestions to help you through your toughest parenting challenges? Check out some of our other blogs on the topic:

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