Does empathy have a cost? Diverging psychological and physiological effects within families

Health Psychol. 2016 Mar;35(3):211-8. doi: 10.1037/hea0000281. Epub 2015 Sep 7.


Objective: Parental empathy is associated with a host of beneficial psychosocial outcomes for children. However, less is known about the effects of being empathic for parents. The current study tested the hypothesis that, although parental empathy may be beneficial to children both psychologically and physiologically, it may take a physiological toll on parents.

Method: The current study examined psychological and physiological correlates of parental empathy in 247 parent-adolescent dyads. During a baseline laboratory visit, parents and adolescents provide blood samples from which markers of systemic inflammation, including interleukin 1-ra, interleukin 6, and C-reactive protein, were assayed. Parents completed self-report questionnaires of empathy, well-being, and self-esteem, and also reported on their child's emotion regulation. Following the laboratory visit, adolescents completed 2 weeks of daily diary reporting on their emotion regulation abilities.

Results: In adolescents, parental empathy was significantly associated with both better emotion regulation and with less systemic inflammation. For parents, being empathic was associated with greater self-esteem and purpose in life, but also with higher systemic inflammation.

Conclusions: These findings reinforce the importance of simultaneously considering both psychological and physical health-related effects of psychosocial traits and suggests that empathy may have diverging effects across providers and recipients of empathy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • C-Reactive Protein / analysis
  • Emotions
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interleukin 1 Receptor Antagonist Protein / blood
  • Interleukin-6 / blood
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Parent-Child Relations*
  • Parents / psychology*
  • Self Concept
  • Self Report


  • Biomarkers
  • Interleukin 1 Receptor Antagonist Protein
  • Interleukin-6
  • C-Reactive Protein