I noticed something was different about my son as soon as he was born. There was something about the way he looked at people; he stared with an intensity I’d never seen a newborn have before. He was able to focus, really focus and look people in the eyes and there were times I felt such a strong sense of connection from him.
I brushed it off and told myself I was being kind of silly. He was a newborn baby after all, but the feeling that he was absorbing my emotions, as well as the emotions of those around him wouldn’t leave me.
When he was 6-weeks-old his dad went away on a 3-night hunting trip, and I remember how petrified I was. I was afraid to be alone with a baby and no back up even though he had just begun sleeping longer stretches. We all know how strong the “Mama Bear” instinct is when our kids are that age, and I was a mess. I was afraid someone was going to break in, I couldn’t relax no matter how hard I tried. I kept reminding myself what a great sleeper he was getting to be, and we would be fine. We would be able to get some rest and have extra snuggles.
But what really happened? Neither of us got any sleep for 3 full days, and it was my fault. If I had just been able to relax, he would have been fine. He knew his Mama was wound tight, and I transferred that stress to him, and he wasn’t able to relax himself.
I know they say all children feel our stress and anxiety, and I believe it. But I also believe some kids just feel it more intensely than others, and my son is one of them. I’ve heard him ask friends if they were mad at a very young age in a way that sounded panicked. It’s like he knows if someone is upset, he is going to feel it and needs to prepare for it.
When he was about 1, we were standing in line at the grocery store and he kept staring at a man, a man who seemed perfectly normal and nice, but he was petrified of him. He clung to me so tight and kept burying his head. Then it happened again with a woman when we were in line at a coffee shop. He told me he was afraid of her. This became part of his life, and now at 14, I can tell what he is thinking, just by the way he looks at others. He is so aware of his surroundings and can feel other’s emotions, which can be good at times, but I know he wishes he could turn it off. Quiet his mind, and just be.
If we go to a family gathering, or party, he picks up on things like tension between two people, or someone feeling sad– then he has to talk about it (“unpack it”) right away because it causes him so much anxiety.
I too am an empath, so I was able to sense it in him right away. I know it can be exhausting, wonderful, and confusing all at the same time.
Judith Orloff M.D. wrote an excellent article about raising an empath for Psychology Today that is extremely helpful. She explains an empathic child has a “nervous system which reacts more quickly and strongly to external stimuli including stress.” In many ways, this can be too much for the child to feel and can lead to “sensory overload” as they “see more, feel more, intuit more and experience emotions more.”
What some may think is a child just being overly sensitive or dramatic, is actually them trying to cope with all these feelings and emotions they are experiencing.
Orloff says they may not enjoy certain scents, or bright lights and “their sensitivities can get assaulted by our coarse world.”
Since most kids are not able to articulate what is going on with their emotions, it’s our job as parents to help them understand and cope with their feelings, and also try to identify the things that may set them off.
Orloff recommends recognizing the people or activities that may overstimulate your child. Things like over-scheduled days, violent television shows, and no alone time are common triggers and can affect your child’s sleep patterns and their moods.
It’s important to note your child is soaking in other people’s emotions, especially those of close friends and family, and they don’t have the “same mechanisms as non-empath children to screen out light, noise, and the chaos of crowds,” says Orloff.
Empathic children can often be labeled as “shy,” or “sensitive” and are sometimes misdiagnosed with depression. (Though empathic children can certainly be depressed, this isn’t always the case.)
It’s easy for our empathic children to feel misunderstood, and Orloff says first we must bring out the best in our child by supporting their “sensitivities as an expression of excellence, compassion, and depth.”
There’s nothing wrong with being so in tune with others that their emotions and feelings rub off on you; in fact, I think it is a superpower.
But it can be frustrating for our kids, as well as for their parent, to manage.
It’s important that our empathic kids realize there is nothing wrong with them, and being more sensitive and intuitive than others is not a bad thing– you can not help how you feel about certain people or situations– you can, however, manage them or steer clear of people or events that cause you too much stress. Self-care, and learning when to check out, is vital for empathic kids (and adults too).
Empaths feel things on a different level. We can’t help it. It’s who we are. I am happy to be one, I am proud to raise one, and if you ask me, the world needs more of them.