Child’s depression can harm the immune system of empathetic parents, study finds

Empathy, or the ability to “walk in someone’s shoes,” is widely regarded as a positive trait. But recent research on the empathy of parents published in Clinical Psychological Science shows that it could be harming them physically.

The study, conducted at Northwestern University, examined the parents of children who suffer from chronic depression. The research team looked at the connection between the emotional suffering of adolescent children and the physical suffering of empathetic parents.

“Depression in children and adolescents is a prevalent, recurrent, and frequently chronic disorder,” said Erika Manczak, corresponding author of the study. “Depression also exposes youths’ support systems to greater strain, including more frequent negative interactions with family members and greater emotional burden on parents.”

143 parent-child pairs participated in the study.  Participants answered self-report questionnaires, then the parents returned a year later for a follow-up blood test. Researchers were interested in measuring cytokine production, which is related to immune system ailments and chronic inflammation.

Results of the study confirmed the team’s hypothesis—the more empathetic the parent, the more physiological suffering experienced. Conversely, parents who scored lower in measures of empathy were less affected by their children’s depressive symptoms.

Scientists believe this correlation may be valid for many types of suffering, not just depression.

“Parents who are better able to take the perspective of others and are more emotionally invested may more viscerally experience and be burdened by their children’s psychological distress,” wrote Manczak.

The study has some limitations, according to the researchers. The teens who participated were all part of a healthy community sample, which may impact the behavior and involvement of parents. Also, the empathy questionnaire has not been officially verified, though it is a commonly used measure in other studies.

Despite these limitations, the team believes the implications of the findings are significant.

“Although…empathy is often assumed to be an exclusively positive characteristic, the current work suggests that…it may also make the person expressing empathy more vulnerable to inflammation-related health problems over time,” said Manczak.

The findings may open the door to new possibilities for researching the parents of children with depression and other psychological conditions.

“Although many interventions exist for treating depressive symptoms in children, we are unaware of studies that consider the impact of children’s treatment on parents,” Manczak said.