Raising kind, empathetic kids is on the top of our must-do parenting list. Not only does it feel intrinsically “right” to teach our kids to respond to the needs of others and grow up to be caring, understanding people, it has also been linked with other positive traits such as less aggression and less depression. So now we’re bummed out by the latest study from Northwestern that shows that while kids of empathetic parents benefit from these efforts, the compassionate parents themselves experience chronic, low-grade inflammation on a cellular level. The study, which involved 247 parent/child pairs, took blood samples and had conversations regarding how both parents and kids felt the parents were able to empathize with and respond to the child’s concerns. While both empathetic parents and their children showed psychological benefits, only the children of empathetic parents benefited on the physiological level with lowered levels of inflammatory markers. The empathetic parents showed increased levels of inflammation, a divergent effect that has been echoed in other recent studies such as this one that examined how a child’s depression can result in increased inflammation in empathetic parents. While this flip side to being an empathetic parent is unfortunate (and not likely to stop those of us attempting to raise compassionate kids from continuing to do so), it does make sense: practicing empathy requires you to consider those around you and occasionally act for their benefit over yours. As parents, we naturally and frequently push aside our wants and basic needs for the sake of our kiddos; the problem comes in when we ignore our own health (mental, physical, and social) in our quest to help our kids. Whether we’re sacrificing sleep, exercise, getting together with other adults kids-free, or any other pursuit that we find less important than attending to our little ones, this study serves as a timely reminder to “put on your oxygen mask first.” Taking care of ourselves sets a good example of balancing priorities for our kids and, since chronic low-grade inflammation can be linked to a variety of health woes, may actually help you be a better, healthier parent in the long run.

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