Two Surprising Ways Empathy Can Be a Bad Thing in Parenting | #parenting

It’s official: Parents can burn out. We’ve never been so willing to admit that before. Covid-19, the ongoing stressors of work-from-home and kids’ hybrid school/home schedules, the availability of anonymous online surveys, and the need to balance competing urgent priorities have all contributed to our willingness to admit to parental burnout. A new study published in the Journal of Individual Differences provides a counterintuitive finding – parents with higher levels of emotional intelligence are more likely to burn out. We generally conceive of emotional intelligence as a “good” thing, in that it is seen as protective. In fact, many parenting programs attempt to increase parents’ emotional intelligence, assuming that this will benefit their children. The current study provides a more nuanced understanding of the interplay of emotional intelligence on parental burnout. (To read more about parental burnout, click here and here.)

This anonymous, online study surveyed 1428 respondents. 91% of the respondents were mothers. The respondents were asked to complete two scales – the Profile of Emotional Competence and the Parental Burnout Assessment. Researchers then used multiple regression and moderation analyses to investigate the relationship between emotional intelligence and parental burnout. As predicted, high levels of a specific type of emotional intelligence predicted parental burnout.

Emotional Intelligence: What Does That Mean?

We tend to use the term “emotional intelligence” broadly, but it refers to two domains: Interpersonal emotional competence and intrapersonal emotional competence. Interpersonal competence means being emotionally intelligent about the emotions of others, and intrapersonal emotional competence means being emotionally intelligent about our own emotions. Both are important for parenting.

Intrapersonal emotional competence can be broken down into several interrelated components:

  1. Identification – I know what emotion I’m feeling
  2. Comprehension – I understand why I’m feeling it
  3. Expression – I can express my emotions in a way that helps others understand what I’m feeling
  4. Use – I can use the wisdom my emotion provides to inform my actions
  5. Regulation – I can regulate my emotions and tolerate distress; I can control emotional excess.

Interpersonal emotional intelligence is similar, particularly in the domain of parenting.

  1. Identification – I know what emotion my child is feeling
  2. Comprehension – I understand why they are feeling it
  3. Expression – I can communicate with my child about their emotions
  4. Use – I can use my understanding of my child’s emotions to inform my reaction and my parenting. 
  5. Regulation – I can can help my children regulate their emotions, I can regulate my own emotions so that I can help them. 

Both would seem to be necessary, even beneficial for parenting. In fact, many parenting programs attempt to raise parental interpersonal intelligence by raising empathy, teaching parents how to more accurately read their children’s emotions, talk to children about emotions, or the importance of empathy in dealing with children and their emotions.

The current study demonstrated that high levels of interpersonal emotional competence, the ability to read, resonate with, and respond to other’s emotions was positively associated with parental burnout. The more “emotionally intelligent” parents were, the more likely they were to burn out. 

Even the Beneficial Is Toxic In The Excess:

Parental burnout is associated with many deleterious outcomes, including escape ideation – when parents fantasize about running away from parenting – suicidal ideation, child neglect, harsh punishment, and even violence towards children. So what starts out as a good thing – being able to read a child’s emotions and react to it – can turn into something that is very, very bad. (For more about how burnout interferes with parenting, click here.)

In an earlier study, Mikolajczack and collaborators posited that high levels of emotional intelligence can contribute to burnout because they consume resources needed for self-regulation. If a parent is in need of some self-care, but her child’s distress signals are magnified by her excellent emotional intelligence, she might neglect her self-care in favor of caring for her child.

This finding might be particularly true of parents who are perfectionists, who might have a hard time tuning out even small levels of distress in their children. Parents are always making choices, and if a parent makes the choice to prioritize self-care, but then can’t enjoy it because she’s worried about her children, that is going to contribute to burnout.  

There’s a principle in ancient medicine that even the beneficial is toxic in the excess. Interpersonal emotional intelligence is one of those things. It’s good to be able to read a child’s emotional state, and to help the child manage distress, but not to the extent that it burns the parent out.

Protective Factors

Intrapersonal emotional competence, or the ability to identify, comprehend, express, use, and regulate ones’ own emotional state, was a protective factor in this study. Parents with high levels of intrapersonal emotional intelligence reported significantly lower levels of burnout. This makes intuitive sense – a parent who has good intrapersonal emotional competence will recognize the signs of burnout, and make sure to deal with it.

We might think of this as the valve on a pressure cooker. If a parent is feeling stress, perhaps due to their child’s distress, and the parent is intrapersonally intelligent, they’re going to do something about that. Someone with good intrapersonal emotional competence will recognize the signs of emotional overwhelm, and act to reduce it. Maybe that means handing off childcare to a partner, or a friend, or a family member, and taking a break. Maybe that means ignoring mild distress in the child and going out to the gym or a lunch date with friends. The child’s mild distress at separation will not be nearly as damaging in the long run as parental burnout potentially could be. In fact, that mild distress might even be beneficial to the child, as a means of learning some self-regulation skills. This is particularly true if the child is being left with a competent caregiver, such as another mom, a co-parent, or an extended family member. (For more on handling parental burnout proactively, click herehere, and here.)

The good news is that intrapersonal emotional competence can be learned. There are many treatment approaches and educational approaches that help people identify, understand, express, use, and regulate their emotions. Perhaps our current parenting interventions should focus less on promoting parental interpersonal intelligence via teaching empathy, and do more to teach intrapersonal emotional competence instead. (To read more about this approach, click here.) 

Limitations of the Study:

This study investigates parents, but given that 91% of respondents were female, does that mean that by “parents” the study actually means “mothers?” It would be useful to survey a sample of fathers, to see if interpersonal and intrapersonal emotional competence has a similar effect in fathers. In addition, the study’s self-report nature means that parents are self-identifying as “interpersonally competent.” An objective measure, such as a face-reading task, would help determine if those who identify as interpersonally competent are as competent as they think they are.

Self-Regulation Before Co-Regulation

An important building block of emotional intelligence in our children is their ability to self-regulate. That’s the ability to manage emotional excess in a way that is adaptive. We teach self-regulation via co-regulation – when we lower our own emotional distress in order to help the child manage theirs. A stressed-out, burned-out parent can’t self-regulate, which means they can’t co-regulate.

A burned-out parent feels emotionally distant from their children. That means that interacting pleasurably with children, cuddling them, reading to them, or playing with them, doesn’t help restore that parent’s sense of self and calm. When a parent isn’t burned out, pleasurable interactions with children help the parent de-stress and reconnect. But a burned-out parent doesn’t benefit from that process, leading to more distance, and less ability to co-regulate.

Ironically, that perfectionist ideal of “I can’t be happy unless my child is happy” is what blocks the child from learning self-regulation from the parent. Sometimes, it’s OK for a child to be mildly uncomfortable, in service of the parent engaging in self-care. It’s OK for a toddler to be bored while her parent eats lunch, or for a child to miss out on an extra-curricular activity that would put too much stress on the family schedule. I’d rather serve PB&J for dinner but leave myself time to cuddle my kids. Even for a parent who is highly aware of their child’s distress, and wants to do it perfectly, it’s OK to just be “good enough.” It’s OK to be less perfect, and more present, in our parenting. 


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