Parental Empathy Is Great For Teens' Well-Being...Just Not Yours

by Anna Gebert
Image via Shutterstock

A study says parental empathy can lead to chronic inflammation… because we don’t already suffer enough

If you have a sneaking suspicion that being an emotionally nurturing parent is secretly harming you…good news! You’re not paranoid. Bad news: science says you’re physically suffering for being a good parent and empathizing with your kids. Cue the sad trombone.

A team from Northwestern University studied 247 pairs of parents and adolescents to evaluate how empathetic parents are to their children’s emotional plights – that is, to what degree parents try to understand their kids’ feelings and respond accordingly to make them feel better – and what psychological and physiological impacts might result. The 13- to 16-year-old participants wrote daily diaries for two weeks – oh, to be privy to the angst on those pages – chronicling their emotions and reactions to events as well as their parents’ responses. The teens and parents also provided blood samples (fun).

Unsurprisingly, those parents who were considered most effective at providing understanding and positive reinforcement made a significant emotional difference for their kids. It’s been well-documented that children who receive such affection are more empathetic themselves, as well as less likely to be depressed and aggressive.

And the teens in the study reported having higher self-esteem and purpose in life. That’s incredible. It’s hard enough parenting moody teenagers, let alone getting them to voluntarily admit that their geezer parents’ nurturing allowed them to feel that type of confidence.

Sounds good so far, right folks? Think again: though both the kids and parents psychologically benefit from parental empathy – aww, ain’t that sweet – the parents alone are physiologically suffering. By feeling for your kids when they’re tense and stressed out, you’re raising your stress levels. You’re also inadvertently suppressing your own emotions, which also – you guessed it – raises stress levels. When stress levels go up consistently, you may suffer systemic inflammation. Ain’t that a bitch.

It begs the question: WHAT MORE CAN WE GIVE THEM?! Come on – our bodies have to grow and expel human beings, then our backs ache from carrying them, and our knees knock from picking shit up all day, we habitually get far less than the recommended amount of sleep, our diets are too often supplemented by leftover, soggy, ketchup-drenched nugget-shaped foods, and we probably (totally) drink too much as a coping mechanism. Now the fancy researchers went and confirmed our hunch that our lovable teenage progeny are actually draining our life force every time we’re good parents. Can someone refill my goblet of wine please?

A little chronic inflammation will not be the straw that breaks the overworked mother’s back; it is, however, another frustrating addition to the heap of evidence that as parents, we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. It’s almost morbidly poetic: the better a parent and the more empathetic you are, the worse the wear and tear on you from the inside. You know, to match your withered exterior.

You say you don’t want chronic inflammation? I guess you have to either purposefully shut off your empathy chip (unlikely) or go full cyborg (even less likely). The only realistic solution is to man up and accept your fate: science confirms that your children will systematically break you down from both the inside and the outside. At least we all agree it’s worth it.