There are parents who, in all the disinterest they show for their children, seem to be well on the way of outliving them. And there’s a scientific reason why this is so.
While it’s actually very important to show empathy toward your children and do everything to understand and validate their feelings, research shows that this act will eventually destroy you on a physiological level.
A team from Northwestern University has looked into how much parental empathy costs, only to find that empathetic parents’ cells were under constant low-grade inflammation. Whenever these parents’ children suffered psychologically, their immune systems experienced a massive hit.
“Although parental empathy may be beneficial to children both psychologically and physiologically, it may take a physiological toll on parents,” states the study led by Erika Manczak, Anita DeLongis, and Edith Chen.
After surveying 247 pairs of parents and their adolescent children, the team found that although the parents felt greater self-esteem and purpose in life, their bodies showed higher systemic inflammation. As a result of their empathy, their children showed better emotion regulation abilities and less systemic inflammation.
This study comes a follow-up of a research where the immune response of 143 pairs of parents with children suffering from depression was put to the test. As the research showed, parents who were higher in empathy showed greater systemic inflammation when their children reported high levels of depressive symptoms.
So, why is this? And should we stay empathetic at the cost of our health?
Empathy means sacrifice, simply because when we empathize, we push away our own feelings to make way for someone else’s. This effort increases stress, and stress causes inflammation.
Which is more, empathetic parents don’t think twice before giving their all, including their health, for the sake of their children. They can go nights without sleeping, they can skip exercise, and do many other things that can mitigate stress.
However, this also means that empathetic parents can work on lowering their stress while they remain to be the amazing parents they are. Self-care is very important for those who put in a high emotional effort, explains Erika Manczak, who is the lead author of both studies.
“Things, like getting enough sleep, exercising, and reducing stress, are all related to these types of immune processes,” Manczak told Quartz. “It’s not selfish for parents to make time for those things—it’s actually critical for their own mental and physical health.”