Being a good parent will physiologically destroy you, new research confirms
Kids with empathetic parents have well-documented advantages: less depression, less aggression, more empathy themselves. Parents also report better self-esteem when they make the effort to understand their children's feelings.
But inside, it's tearing them up.
A team from Northwestern University has examined the hidden costs of parental empathy. They found that while the children of empathetic parents are better off physically and emotionally, the parents' cells reveal chronic, low-grade inflammation. When their children suffer psychologically, empathetic parents' immune systems take a hit.
Researchers surveyed 247 pairs of parents and their adolescent children on how often and to what degree parents could understand their children's feelings and respond with appropriate concern. They also took blood samples. Empathetic parents and their children were both better off psychologically. Children of empathetic parents also showed lower levels of inflammatory markers. Their parents were just the opposite. Their samples revealed this low-grade systemic inflammation.
That study, published online late last year and appearing next month in the journal Health Psychology, follows research published last year in the journal Clinical Psychological Science. There, the Northwestern team surveyed 143 pairs of parents and teenage children on parents' empathy and children's depression. A year later, they took blood samples from the parents and introduced a bacterial component to study the immune response.
As their children's depressive symptoms increased, so did empathetic parents' inflammatory markers. The findings were consistent with previous research showing that caregivers of people with chronic illness develop chronic inflammation and elevated stress hormones over time.
Why is this? Empathy requires us to push our own feelings aside to focus on someone else's, an effort linked to increased stress and higher inflammation. Empathetic parents may also be more willing to sacrifice their own health for their children's sake, forgoing things like sleep, exercise, and other activities that could mitigate the stress of caregiving.
Family therapy often counsels parents on how to be more empathetic, given the enormous benefit to children. But if that emotional effort comes at a physical cost, parents need to be taught how to care for themselves too, said Erika M. Manczak, a Northwestern psychology graduate student and the lead author of both studies.
家庭治疗通常都建议父母们如何更加的善解人意，更多的为孩子着想。但如果这个感情投入是以身体的投入做代价的话，父母们则更应该被教会如何关爱自己。这是Erika M. Manczak，西北大学心理学研究生及这两篇论文的主要作者给出的建议。
“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.”
“像有足够的睡眠，锻炼身体和减少焦虑等，都是和免疫系统相关联的，”Manczak告诉Quartz。“父母们找时间做这些事并不是自私 – 而是对于自己的心理和生理健康都相当重要的。”