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Empathetic children may have poorer health when confronted with conflict between parents




Empathetic children may have poorer health when confronted with conflict between parents

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Children who report being more empathetic are more likely to show signs of poorer health when faced with more conflict between parents than less empathetic children, according to a new study led by researchers at Penn State College of Health and Human Development.

The study, led by Hannah Schreier, associate professor of biobehavioral health and faculty member at the Social Science Research Institute, was published in the journal Brain, behavior and immunity.

“For children this age, 7 to 9 years old, the family home and parents are important, so observing conflict between parents can be stressful,” Schreier said. “And we now know that from a physiological point of view, children can react negatively to perceived conflict.”

The researchers used data from surveys and blood samples from home visits to 106 children between 7 and 9 years old and their parents who participated in Family Foundations, an initiative led by co-author Mark Feinberg, research professor at the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center (PRC ), which evaluates the effectiveness of a perinatal co-parenting intervention for new parents.

Previous research from that ongoing study shows this parents who took Family Foundations classes had more positive family relationships and experienced less conflict within the entire family, but also between parents or children.

The surveys assessed both children’s perceptions of conflict between parents, including whether they felt threatened and whether they felt at fault when their parents fought.

The children also self-reported their empathy, including whether they felt sorry when other people were sad and whether they cared about others’ feelings. The parents provided ratings of the child’s overall health, on a scale from excellent to poor.

The researchers also analyzed the levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6) in blood samples taken from the children. Elevated levels of CRP and IL-6 indicate higher levels of chronic inflammation in the body.

Inflammation is an important aspect of the body’s immune response. Acute or short-term inflammation is an important response to a specific injury and can help the body heal. Chronic inflammation has no specific cause or injury that causes it.

This chronic background inflammation, which is not necessarily a concern in the short term, is linked to negative long-term health effects when increased over a long period of time. Previous research has linked chronic inflammation to the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer, among other things.

Based on these self-reported and biological measures, the researchers found that children who reported being more empathetic had higher levels of CRP, which indicates higher levels of chronic inflammation, and poorer parent-reported overall health when they experienced more conflict between children. parents observe.

Crucially, the researchers said that more empathetic children did not report greater conflict at home. In addition, children reported regular, daily conflicts that did not rise to the level of violence or domestic violence.

Schreier said it is especially important to have these results for younger children, who had been largely left out of previous research on possible physiological consequences of empathy and conflict. For this age group, the results also have implications that extend far beyond the household.

“These results raise interesting questions about children’s home and school environments,” she said. “Empathy is important, especially at this stage of life, but there is no point in pushing more empathy education to all children. Some children may need help understanding when it’s okay to set boundaries and how to find a balance between being aware of how others are feeling but not copying every little thing that happens.”

The result could influence future education programs because it highlights the importance of addressing individualized needs, Schreier said.

“The most important message in our society is that empathy is good, and it is good for us to be surrounded by people who are more empathetic,” Schreier said.

“But empathy can have positive and negative consequences. We don’t talk much about what it means for the person who is more empathetic and what it’s like to take on the emotions of others. Our work adds to the growing literature that shows that being more empathetic can have detrimental effects on your health.”

More information:
Hannah MC Schreier et al., Children’s empathy moderates the association between perceived interparental conflict and children’s health, Brain, behavior and immunity (2024). DOI: 10.1016/j.bbi.2024.02.022

Provided by Pennsylvania State University

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