Sunday, February 28, 2016

Is Being Empathetic Parents Physiologically Destroying Us?

As "good parents," we are supposed to teach our children empathy. Right?

How do we do that? By showing them empathy, of course. By empathizing with them and their feelings. We all have our own ways of doing this. (An entire topiz for another day.)


We know that being an empathetic parent is excellent for our children's physical and emotional well-being and teaches them how to be empathetic toward others. Empathy is supposed to be a positive quality for parents. 

That is what I have always thought, anyway. Up until now. Am I alone here?

Researchers are now saying that empathetic parents' bodies take an immunological hit when their children experience psychological suffering. They are saying that being an empathetic parent can actually be harmful for us. 

The study published online last summer suggests that empathetic parents experience systemic inflammation when their children are suffering emotionally or psychologically. 

We feel their pain physiologically. 

In the adolescents studied, parental empathy was significantly correlated with a higher ability to regulate their emotions and lower systemic inflammation. The "empathetic parents" who were studied demonstrated higher self-esteem and purpose in life, but also, interestingly enough, higher systemic inflammation. 

We naturally empathize with our kids. 

Obviously, we all empathize on different levels and show it in our own ways. It makes sense when they are hurting, we are hurting. They are our babies! Of course we feel stress when our kids are are dealing with emotional or psychological anguish.

This study, which will appear in the March 2016 Health Psychology journal, is consistent with an abstract that was published last summer by the Clinical Psychological Science journal called "The Price of Perspective Taking." In this study, the researchers concluded that adolescent symptoms of depression have an immunological price tag for their empathetic parents. 

In scientific terms, in the parent-child pairs wherein the kids reported high levels of depressive symptoms and the parents were higher in empathy, the parents revealed higher inflammatory cytokine production. 

Was it a coincidence? 

I may have believed that it was a coincidence, but the less empathetic parents showed a pattern that was just the opposite, and the children who reported low levels of depressive symptoms had parents with lower cytokine production. 

Cytokines are, simply put, inflammatory chemicals that serve as messengers between cells. They interact with the immune system cells to regulate how our bodies respond to infection and disease. They also mediate our bodies' normal cellular functions. 

Not all cytokines are alike. In fact, they can be quite diverse.

There are numerous pro-inflammatory cytokines (which stimulate the immune system) and anti-inflammatory cytokines (which suppress the immune system). Inappropriate production or overproduction of specific cytokines by our bodies can result in illness and disease. Elevated levels of cytokines are found in fibrosis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and many more devastating illnesses. 

Take Ebola, for instance. 

We have all heard of the Ebola outbreaks. Experts say that it is not the virus that ends up killing people, but rather the "cytokine storm" at the end that will kill them. This diagram shows how cytokine storms work:

Ebola invokes a cytokine storm, which, in simple terms, causes the immune system to work full-force. It is like an all-out attack to kill a virus, but the collateral damage that results is what ends up being the detrimental force. Blood vessels become permeable, hence, the capillaries, veins, and arteries leak out plasma and blood. Blood pressure drops to dangerous levels and severe septic shock occurs, killing the host.

Back to empathy. 

In order to be empathetic, we have to put our own feelings and emotions to the side while we focus on someone else and how they feel. Being empathetic parents often requires us to put aside our physical needs, including sleep, exercise, and taking a nice hot bath to calm the body. Or at least sit for 5 minutes in the evening and drink a glass of wine. 

The effort to suppress our own feelings and emotions increases our stress and inflammation levels. 

Is the price that we pay to be empathetic parents worth it?  

Then, let's take into consideration that these studies were based on one child for each parent. Most of us have more than that, so we're taking these results and multiplying them. 

But, empathy is so vital in life. Isn't it?

I love how President Obama talked about empathy back in August of 2006. He said: 

“You know, there’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this – when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers – it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.”

Even people who cannot stand President Obama, you really cannot disagree with him. The world would be a better place if everyone was equally empathetic. 

The world is not that way.

So, we have to make our own decisions of whether the trade-off for our health is worth the outcome of raising empathetic kids. 

I know I will not be giving up on trying to teach my kids to attempt to see the world from another person's shoes. I do not want any of them to end up being empathy deficit jerks. 

I do not want them to be ignorant of other people's feelings. Or intolerant. Toxic behaviors. No, thank you.

I want my children to at least understand that everyone has feelings and we should be conscious of how we make people feel. Even the meanest of mean people have feelings and emotions. They know what it is like to encounter a bully.   

As it stands, I have already been sacrificing my health for YEARS to teach them the right way, why turn back now? 

What are your thoughts?  

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