When my daughter started attending a new middle school several years ago, a couple of girls in her class began to bully her. Up until this time, she had been a happy, carefree child with many friends. Suddenly, she was shutting down emotionally and spending hours alone in her room.
It was the first time I had ever really experienced one of my children in the kind of pain that had nothing to do with a skinned knee. And as tough as it was for her to get through that difficult time, I found the toll that it took on me — both physically and emotionally — was even greater.
Empathy is a beautiful thing. Stepping into someone else’s shoes and trying to imagine their pain, for even a moment, brings compassion and tolerance to the world. It reminds us what it means to be human and is probably the most important quality we can model for our children.
But there’s a downside to spending too much time feeling the pain our kids feel.
When I reflect back on that time with my daughter, I recall weeks of sleepless nights, continuous knots in my stomach and an inability to focus. It wasn’t until I found a good therapist that I began to recognize the need to separate support of my daughter from my own feelings of hurt and anxiety, many of which I experienced when I was bullied as a teen.
Yes, worry is a natural part of parenting, but taking on your child’s every feeling can prove dangerous to your health. According to a 2016 study by the National Institutes of Health, while being an empathetic parent can give you stronger self-esteem and purpose, it can also cause higher inflammation levels, most likely as a result of stress.
If you’re hyper-vigilant to your child’s every emotion, you’re likely in a state of high stress (as in “fight or flight” mode). Although a little bit of stress can make us healthy and alert, long-term stress can cause damage to the immune system, cognitive skill impairment to attention and memory, exhaustion, burnout, depression, headaches and digestive issues.
But how do you know if you’re too empathetic? 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?
If you answered yes to the majority of the above, it may be time to take a step back.
How to prevent empathy burnout
You can cultivate your own emotional resilience, says Emma Seppala, Ph.D., science director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. She recommends the following:
- Tap into mindfulness practices with a calming breath: When you feel a fight or flight response, your breathing often quickens. When you’re relaxed, it slows and deepens. By purposefully slowing and relaxing your breath, you’ll decrease your heart rate and calm your nervous system.
- Develop self-compassion: Treat yourself as you would a good friend. Instead of berating yourself with criticism, turn your empathy inward and give yourself kind encouragement. It’s a powerful way to boost your emotional well-being.
Self-compassion often helps in situations where you feel powerless — such as fixing your child’s feelings. Drawing on her research in educational psychology, University of Texas associate professor Kristin Neff, Ph.D., recommends the following practices:
- Be kind to yourself: Learn to change your internal dialogue and give yourself a break. Speak to yourself with positive words and phrases, such as, “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” and “I’d like you to make a change so you can be happier.”
- Prioritize alone time: Just being around other people makes our heart rate go up. Being alone is a restorative and important habit to get into — 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.
Whatever you can do to calm your nervous system will be a gift to yourself and your child. The more you can focus on your own well-being, the better equipped you’ll be to give your child the support he or she needs.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in April 2017, and updated in November 2020.