Food 4 Thought, Parenting

Commentary: Does Parental Empathy Have a Cost?

I am intrigued by a research study finding that empathetic parents of adolescents were psychologically strong but paying a price physically; while the adolescents were doing well on both fronts. This is getting some attention in the media as news, but is it really new information?

The study says, “responding empathically often necessitates transcending one’s own point of view and being nonreactive to whatever is encountered…To accomplish this, parents may suppress their own feelings in order to help their children feel safe or understood…Emotional suppression is known to increase physiological responses to stressors.”

Yes, I agree completely! Let’s make these abstract concepts more real with a very personal and concrete example. My 4-year old is seriously upset because the ballet slippers she so desperately wants are not available in her size. We’ve been down this road before, and it could get ugly. The whining is picking up speed, appeals to logic are going unheard. Freeze frame, here I give you a rare uncensored glimpse of what actually goes on in my mind… ”Noooooo, not again, what the f***! They are just slippers, she doesn’t appreciate all that she has, who cares about slippers anyway… bribe her, threaten punishment, walk away, no then she’ll run after you screaming, aaahhhhhh…”

Some iteration of this flashes through in a matter of seconds, I won’t lie sometimes some of this comes out, but if I can pull it together, I won’t say any of that because the truth is it’s all useless. Instead I’ll kneel down and say, “Hey, let’s talk for a sec, you’ve been really good about waiting for your slippers and I know you were so excited about it, it’s terrible they don’t have your size and now you have to wait more. I can see you’re upset and frustrated, what can we do?” And hope with all my might, something comes out of her mouth that I can work with.

Why go through all this emotional censoring? Simple, I know that when I am upset, angry, sad or frustrated, the very last thing I want is someone else getting pissy with me because I feel the way I feel. That just makes it exponentially worse. What’s helpful is someone who can hold the space for my feelings until I’m able to work through them. It’s no different with kids or adolescents; they just need a little more guidance in the process.

Here is the kicker – it is 100 times easier to say exactly what I feel, exert parental force, and unleash my own frustration to harness the situation by any means. It takes tremendous will power, practice and inner-strength to not react and be thoughtful about what I say and do, giving my best shot at empathy. The irony is that I am more emotionally exhausted when I hold it together and remain externally calm and collected than when I let out my own adult tantrum to rival and squelch that of any child’s.

So it comes as absolutely no surprise to me that being (or striving to be) an empathetic parent is akin to living with chronic stress – it takes a toll on the body, even if psychologically I am riding high.

This all brings home a very powerful point, and something I’ve been struggling with. The more you care for others, the more you must invest in and make space for yourself. Being emotionally supportive of others is rewarding, but there is a cost to suppressing your own feelings (regardless of what they are). There is a two-fold balancing force, 1. acknowledging and processing your own feelings AND 2. doing things that re-energize you. Otherwise, the sad truth is that the constant care of others with no equal self-care will only end in burn out, sooner or later, inside or outside.

Takeaway (as much for you as for me) – if you want to be good to your kids, take care of yourself. Like they tell you on the plane, put your oxygen mask on first and then help the kid next to you. Because frankly, you’re useless if you’ve conked out.

Lastly, I believe something critical is left out of the research because it is a long-term implication – the impact and importance of modeling. Kids are their parent’s constant reflection. Modeling, or teaching by doing, is a force to be reckoned with. Give the kids short and abrupt NO’s and that is what you will get in return. The things kids do most consistently is what they see done around them. Some of these behaviors are easy to catch and parents can adjust accordingly. Yet, there are behaviors that won’t be as obvious until the kids get to be adults themselves – like self-care. To bring it all full-circle, empathetic parents who are not invested in their own self-care are by default neglecting to teach their children the importance of caring for themselves as future adults.

So while mastering the empathy bit may be the obvious work for many of us parents, perhaps the even greater challenge is to model healthy self-care by putting the mask on first.

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  • Reply Deb Williams March 4, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    Lots to think about in your message and your storytelling, Melissa. Great job. As a parent of two lovely grown people, I so wish (woulda, coulda, shoulda) I gathered up my strength better at teachable moments when my children were under the age of say 16. Having said that, I think it’s never too late and when you “let loose” inappropriately you can humbly apologize. Our children learn a lot from that modeling too, at any age. By the way, I’m a big advocate for “self care” and I honestly get frustrated when I hear (from others or out of my own mouth) I don’t have time. Actually we don’t have time NOT to.

    • Reply mselem March 4, 2016 at 6:57 pm

      Hi Deb! Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I agree, the ability to apologize and recognize one’s mistakes is important too!

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