Two studies of mothers and their children found that maternal emotional empathy acts as a buffer protecting parents against emotional burnout. This is particularly the case with mothers of children more prone to experiencing negative emotions. The study was published in the British Journal of Psychology.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings, thoughts, and perspectives of others. It often leads to a sense of connection and emotional resonance. Empathy involves being attuned to someone else’s emotional state and responding with compassion and support, even if one doesn’t necessarily experience the same emotions. It is fundamental for understanding the social world around us.
Previous studies have shown that empathy of children, combined with sensitivity of mothers can serve as a protective factor for parents. However, little is known whether empathy is also a protective factor for parents. Taking care of children can sometimes create feelings of exhaustion and emotional distancing from the children in parents. This is known as parental burnout. It is caused by high levels of stress evoked by childcare demands.
Study author Tamar Kadosh-Laor and her colleagues wanted to know how empathy changes the association between a child’s tendency to express negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, sadness, and anger (negative emotionality) and parental burnout. It is known from previous studies that children more prone to experiencing negative emotions incur a higher demand on parents. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of parental burnout. However, might empathy be a protective factor against burnout?
The researchers noted that emotional empathy has two components – empathic concern, which can increase caregiving and protect the parent against burnout, and personal distress, which may increase the likelihood that the parent will experience negative emotions when the child experiences them (e.g., when the child is crying.) They conducted two studies of mothers and their children.
Participants of the first study were 203 mothers with toddlers 10-18 months old. They completed a number of assessments, but for the current paper the researchers analyzed assessments of emotional and cognitive empathy (the Interpersonal Reactivity Index), temperament of the infant (the Infant Behaviour Questionnaire – Revised), and parental burnout of the mother (the Parental Burnout Inventory).
Participants of the second study were 201 mothers of children 0-10 years of age. Data were collected from them during one of the COVID-19 pandemic related lockdowns in Israel in September 2020, for the purposes of a larger study. These participants also completed a number of assessments including those of empathy (the Interpersonal Reactivity Index), temperament of their children (the Children’s Behavior Questionnaire – very short form) and their parental burnout (the Parental Burnout Inventory).
The results of the first study showed that mothers of children more prone to experiencing negative emotions were more likely to be emotionally exhausted i.e., to experience parental burnout. This link was much stronger in mothers who were already experiencing strong personal distress compared to those who were not in distress.
This link was also stronger in mothers whose empathic concern was low. Empathic concern refers to the ability and willingness to understand and share the feelings of others, particularly when they are going through challenging or difficult situations. It involves genuinely caring about someone else’s emotions and being motivated to help or support them based on that understanding.
The results of study 2 confirmed the results of the first study. Mothers who were experiencing high personal distress and had children prone to experiencing negative emotions were more likely to be emotionally exhausted compared to mothers who were experiencing low distress levels. Mothers with higher levels of empathic concern were less likely to be emotionally exhausted. Mothers who experience more personal distress and whose children tended to experience negative emotions more often were more likely to be emotionally exhausted.
“The current study shows that maternal empathic concern can protect from parental burnout in light of growing parental demands and that maternal personal distress can increase the likelihood to experience parental burnout. The implication is that maternal trait empathy may be one of the resources needed to handle parenting stress, and that this can and should be the focus of future interventions for increasing parenting resources,” the study authors concluded.
The study sheds light on an important role empathy plays in mother-child relationships. However, all data came from self-reports by mothers, including assessment of children’s properties. Results might not be the same if data on children’s characteristics were collected from a different source. Additionally, data from the second study were collected during a 2020 COVID-19 pandemic related lockdown, a time when parental stress levels were likely higher than typical.
The study, “Empathy and parenthood: The moderating role of maternal trait empathy on parental burnout”, was authored by Tamar Kadosh-Laor, Liat Israeli-Ran, Ido Shalev, and Florina Uzefovsky.