There’s no doubt that children of empathic parents thrive more than those raised without it. Research proves that theory and it makes sense when you think about it: Creating an environment for your children that makes them feel loved, safe and cared for is a natural way to help them excel in life.
But there’s a downside for parents. Too much empathy can hurt you, adding undue stress and anxiety to your life. Are you too empathic with your child? To find out, you may want to ask yourself some questions:
- Are you consumed with anxiety when your child goes in to take a challenging test?
- Have friends or family members told you that you “worry too much”?
- If your child has a tough day, does it keep you up at night?
- Do you find yourself often taking on your son or daughter’s feelings?
While worry is a natural part of parenting, taking on your child’s every feeling can prove dangerous to your own health and well-being.
According to a 2016 study by the National Institute of Health, while being an empathic parent can give you higher self-esteem and purpose, it can also cause higher inflammation levels, most likely as a result of stress.
If you are constantly aware and hyper-vigilant to every emotion of your child, chances are you are often in a state of high stress. It’s called the “fight or flight” mode. While this response is a healthy mechanism for dangerous situations, living in this constant state can be detrimental to your health.
Although a little bit of stress can make us healthy and alert, long-term stress can impair the immune system, cognitive skills, attention and memory, leading to exhaustion, burnout, depression, headaches and digestive issues
How to prevent empathy fatigue
According to Emma Seppala, Ph.D., Science Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, there are ways to avoid the downsides of empathy and cultivate your own emotional resilience.
Tap into mindfulness practices with a calming breath
When you are feeling an emotion like fight or flight, breaths come in rapidly. When you’re relaxed, the breath slows and deepens.
By slowing and relaxing your breath, you’ll decrease your heart rate and automatically calm your nervous system. One such technique can be found at the Art of Living Foundation website.
Self-compassion is a powerful way to boost your emotional well being. It involves treating yourself like you would a colleague or a friend. Rather than being hard on yourself, self-criticizing or judging, you turn your empathy back on yourself.
In situations where you feel powerless, (like fixing your child’s feelings) you can find strength through self-compassion. Kristin Neff, Ph.D., an associate professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s department of educational psychology, has done extensive research in self-compassion. You can find some exercises she has developed here.
Be kind to yourself
Learn to change your internal dialogue and give yourself a break. Speak to yourself with positive words and phrases. Neff suggests the following examples of positive self-talk: “It’s okay that you failed; it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.” “I believe in you and support you, and I know you can do it.” Or, “I’d like you to make a change so you can be happier.
Prioritize alone time
Just being in the presence of other stressed or overly concerned people can make our heart rate higher. Context is key. Being alone is a rejuvenating and important habit to cultivate—even if it’s only for a few minutes a day. Take a short walk, read a book, take a bath or just sit quietly and reflect.
Find social support
While alone time is critical for getting grounded and finding stillness, spending time with those who are going through similar situations is equally important. Problem solving, discussing parenting challenges and sharing your story with trusted peers, family or friends can help offset feelings of stress and actually calm the nervous system.