Do you feel highly anxious when your child cries or even whines? Do you feel that having children has significantly increased your stress levels? Are you on high alert and worried about your child’s safety? Do people think you are overly cautious and reactive when it comes to your child?
Then you might be a highly empathic parent. Extremely attuned to your child, you notice the slightest change in the way she whines or cries. You cringe when she falls, and when she hurts herself, you literally feel her pain. Sometimes, the experience is more unbearable to you as it is for her. You can’t even fathom letting your child “cry it out,” even if that means you yourself suffer endless sleepless nights.
Highly empathic parents often think there's something wrong with them. Other people might chide you for being too much of a worry-wart or they may even suggest that you have an anxiety problem. You might wonder why other parents are relaxed and laid-back, while you feel overwhelmed and burned out on parenthood.
The good news is that there is nothing wrong with you. In fact, research suggests your children are more likely to grow up both happier and healthier than other children. A new study shows that children of highly empathic parents thrive—they are psychologically and physically healthier and more balanced. This makes sense. After all, you've created a world for them in which they feel loved, safe, cared for and attended to. And because you are so finely attuned to your child, you're probably selecting the right kinds of foods, environments and experiences to suit their needs and temperament.
This study has some challenging news for you, however. On the one hand, the study shows that you have higher self-esteem and a greater feeling of purpose in life than other parents. However, as a highly empathic parent, you also may end up with higher inflammation levels—probably as a result of stress.
For one, you are hyper-vigilant, a trait people attribute to anxiety disorders but that, in this case, simply comes from deep empathy and concern. Hyper-vigilance, by making you highly attentive to and focused on potential dangers, can be taxing. If you're constantly in high-alert mode and cautious around your child, your system is in a constant state of “fight or flight” mode.
We know from research that a little bit of stress can help make us alert and focused. However, long-term stress can start to break down both our body and mind, impairing our immune function and cognitive skills like attention and memory. Constantly putting the needs of another before your own can also lead to exhaustion and burnout over time, as you ignore your own needs day after day.