When children are stressed by the stress of others

Empathy is our ability to share and understand the emotions of others.

Most experts agree that there are at least two types of empathy; a more emotional (or “affective”) type and a more cognitive type. Affective empathy refers to experience the emotional state of others and cognitive empathy means agreement the emotional state of others.

Empathy is our ability to share and understand the emotions of others. Image: Getty Images

These two processes usually happen together when we empathize.

Our capacity for empathy is vital for good social functioning. Research has found associations between increased empathic tendencies and increased selflessness.

However, engaging in certain types of empathy in different situations can carry various risks for the empathizer or those around him. For example, burnout (often referred to as empathic burnout) among professionals like nurses or counselors can mean that patients are not receiving the best care.

For many researchers, empathy is of interest in mental health, as empathic ability is often impaired in a range of disorders, including autism spectrum disorders, narcissism, as well as anxiety and depression.


Research has already shown that people who experience high levels of “empathic distress” – that is, who become anxious while sharing negative feelings with others – may experience higher symptoms of depression.

On the other hand, low levels of “cognitive empathy” (or difficulty understanding the feelings of others) are also associated with depression and anxiety.

But a major gap in our knowledge is whether these relationships exist in children.

Our capacity for empathy is vital for good social functioning. Image: Getty Images

Despite a lower prevalence of anxiety and depressive disorders in children, about 30 percent of children in the community may experience at least one episode of “internalizing” difficulties, which means they exhibit symptoms of anxiety and of depression.

The onset of these symptoms in childhood increases the risk and severity of disorders in adolescence and adulthood, and relapses and recurrences are common in young people, even after receiving treatment.

We know that intervening early is essential for successful mental health outcomes. And by understanding the links between these symptoms and other key socio-emotional traits, we can open up new areas for early detection or intervention.


In our study, we asked 127 9- and 10-year-old children to complete assessments of their cognitive and emotional empathic abilities, as well as their anxiety and depressive symptoms.

The children assessed their own empathic abilities and tendencies. For example, can they easily tell how other people are feeling? Or when a friend feels sad, does he or she start to feel sad too?

Children who have indicated that they share and were distressed feelings of others (referred to as “emotional sharing” and “empathic distress,” respectively, were also more likely to have high anxiety – especially social anxiety – and depressive symptoms.

Anxiety and depression in children can include symptoms like feeling sad more often. Image: Getty Images

When we talk about high anxiety and depressive symptoms in children, we mean symptoms like feeling sad most often, having negative self-esteem, physical symptoms (things like changes in diet or sleep ), difficulties with school or friends, as well as having worries or fears that bother the child a lot and prevent him from engaging in activities he would like to do.

Researchers are still not sure exactly why emotional or affective empathy is linked to anxiety and depressive symptoms, but they have a few ideas.

It can be related to two related concepts known as “emotional reactivity” and “regulation of emotions”.

Children who are more responsive to emotional states – both their own and others – may be more likely to report both higher levels of emotional empathy and high levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Another possibility is that some children may experience more empathic distress if their ability to regulate emotions is not well developed.

A high capacity for empathy has been described as a ‘risky force’, meaning that it is not detrimental on its own, but when combined with other potential factors and traits, it can become a risk factor for anxiety and subsequent depressive symptoms. But more research is needed to find out what these other factors are and how they interact.


Contrary to what has been observed in adults, the ability of children to understand the feelings of others (called “cognitive empathy”) were not related to their own mental health.

Children are able to share the emotions of others from an early age. Image: Getty Images

It seems that in children the relationship between the emotional components of empathy and mental health already exists, but the relationship between the cognitive aspect of empathy and mental health has yet to develop.

Children are able to share the emotions of others from a young age – even babies will cry when they hear others cry – but they take longer to develop the ability to understand what others are feeling.

These abilities continue to develop throughout childhood and even into adolescence, so it is possible that the relationships between cognitive empathy and depression or anxiety do not appear until later in development. of a child.


These findings can help us better understand aspects of a child’s social and emotional experience.

We don’t yet know whether depression and anxiety change the way we empathize, or whether sensing other people’s feelings intensely can make us more vulnerable to mental health issues.

Examining how these relationships change over time will help us determine if and how empathic abilities create a risk for the development of mental health problems.

And this, in turn, will facilitate the development of new types of empathy-based treatments.

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