People who experience traumatic events as children are more empathetic as adults

New research provides evidence that traumatic experiences in childhood are associated with empathy levels in adulthood. The study, published in PLOS One, indicates that people who experience traumatic events as children are better at responding to the emotional states of others as adults.

“My experiences doing clinical work as a psychotherapist with children and adults inspired this research,” said study author David M. Greenberg of the University of Cambridge and City University of New York.

The researchers surveyed 387 adults via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk regarding their history of childhood trauma and level of empathy. They also surveyed another 442 adults using a different empathy measure.

In both surveys, adults who reported experiencing a traumatic event in childhood tended to have higher levels of empathy. Traumatic events included the death of a very close friend or family member, parental divorce or discord, traumatic sexual experiences such as molestation, and being subjected to violence.

“Readers of this study should take away that there are pathways to personal growth and resilience after experiencing a trauma,” Greenberg told PsyPost.

Childhood trauma was only associated with elevated levels of affective empathy. It was not linked to higher levels of cognitive empathy.

“Cognitive empathy (also referred to as ‘mentalizing’) is the ability to understand another’s thoughts and feelings, whereas affective empathy is the ability respond to another person’s mental state with an appropriate emotion,” the study explained.

“The major caveats of this study is that it relied on self-report and retrospective data. Future studies need to use a longitudinal approach,” Greenberg said.

“Readers can also find out their empathy scores by going to www.musicaluniverse.org and selecting the ‘your brain type’ option.”

The study, “Elevated empathy in adults following childhood trauma“, was authored by David M. Greenberg, Simon Baron-Cohen, Nora Rosenberg, Peter Fonagy, and Peter J. Rentfrow.