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More PsychNotes: Parenting

The Physical Toll on Empathetic Parents and How to Find Balance
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

parent helping child learn to ride a bike
I once asked a client, “Would you rather be an emotionally sensitive person and have an anxiety disorder or would you rather be less compassionate and concerned about others?” Understanding that being emotionally empathic may come at a cost she preferred to be as she is. Such is true of most empathetic people—caring deeply about others, they are willing to sacrifice their own physical well-being even if they have a choice.

Parents who are empathetic have better relationships with their children. In addition, children of such parents are less likely to have depression or aggressive behavior and have a greater ability to empathize and manage their emotions in healthy ways. They also have lower levels of inflammation indicating they are likely to be more physically healthy. The parents experience psychological benefits likely due to feeling good about their parenting and having a sense of satisfaction and pride. However, the physical cost is greater for these parents. They show signs of chronic inflammation which may result in more stress-related illnesses (Manczak et al., 2015).

However, the question may be is it truly necessary to have a physiological cost in most cases? The research indicates that the problem may be due to parents ignoring their own needs in favor of caring for their children. Is it possible to care for others and still care for yourself? The helping professions are notorious for burn out, often referred to these days as “compassion fatigue.” Yet not all health professionals experience the deleterious effects. What is the difference between those who can spend decades in the helping professions and those who succumb to stress early? Usually it is related to knowing how to find a balance in their lives which reduces the stress-related effects.

How can parents and other caregivers achieve balance?

1) Give yourself permission to take care of your own needs. By recognizing that the more you take care of yourself the more you will be available to others you will be more likely to permit yourself the time and energy to focus on your needs. Imagine yourself as a glass of water—you can't keep emptying that glass without filling it up because you will be depleted of your resources.

2) Say “no” and don't over-extend yourself. Parents and caregivers need to prioritize. You can't agree to every request. Prioritizing allows you to determine which requests are most important so that you don't take on too much. It also allows you to determine when others can manage on their own without your assistance.

3) Don't let others take advantage of your helpfulness. Sometimes others will, either deliberately or unintentionally, take advantage of your helpful nature. Other people don't know your limits and will tend to ask for more because they can count on you. It is okay to be frustrated about these demands but use your anger to help you set limits assertively when others expect too much.

4) Have other activities that allow you to unwind. Make the time to pursue activities that are relaxing for you. Have some time for yourself everyday but also plan major activities that you can look forward to.

5) Eliminate demands or make them into desires. Recognize that you devote your time and energy to others not because you have to but because you want to. When you see your behavior as a desire (something that you want) rather than a demand (somethings that others want or need from you) you are likely to feel less stressed. If you can't view a situation that way, you may need to examine why it is a demand and if it is necessary. For instance, a demand such as “I must always be available for my children” can be changed to a desire “I want to be available to my children.” But if you still feel you “must” you might need to determine if that is reasonable. In this scenario, children can grow up healthy (and maybe more so) if the parent doesn't devote all his or her time to them.

Manczak, E. M., DeLongis, A., & Chen, E. (2015). Does Empathy Have a Cost? Diverging Psychological and Physiological Effects Within Families. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1037/hea0000281

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