Empathic Over-Arousal

If you’re a mom, you’ve definitely had the experience of your baby or toddler crying out when placed into their crib. If your child is already verbal by this stage, perhaps you tend to hear the heartbreaking cry of “Mommy, come back!” Your pulse quickens, your heart drops into your stomach and settles into a familiar pit (for me, that’s a telltale sign of anxiety). Rationally, you know your child is fed, hydrated, freshly diapered, and completely safe, but your brain can’t compute. You expected to have a hard time with their cries when as an infant, but you’re surprised to still experience the physiological reaction at this stage.

Research shows us the evolutionary value of being programmed to respond to an infant’s cries. Physiological responses, which include increased heart rate, changes in blood pressure, and shifts in galvanic skin responses (i.e. changes in sweat gland activity reflecting emotional arousal) are common. Christine Parsons, Ph.D., a psychologist and associate professor at Aarhaus University in Denmark notes that the brain starts to respond to crying almost instantaneously (e.g. quicker than 100 milliseconds) and the need to “protect” your child overpowers your whole system. That’s all well and good and clearly an adaptive response; however, when a mother’s system is overwhelmed too often and for too long without a break, “empathic over-arousal” can occur. Dr. Rilling points out that, “when you activate these emotional empathy systems excessively and take on your children’s distress, to the extent that you yourself become stressed out and anxious, that can interfere with your ability to give compassionate and appropriate care.”

So what’s the takeaway from all of this information and who needs to hear it? 

If you stay at home full time with your child, you likely experience more than your fair share of soothing crying children. As more moms begin/continue to work from home, you may be hearing those cries more frequently from your child in the next room over. And even for those moms who work outside of the home, hearing those bedtime cries can often be the hardest to not internalize. 

Moms need to remember that when your child is distressed, you are still ok. We can have empathy for our child’s difficult feelings without taking them on as our own. You can be a loving, responsive mother without responding to every tear with your full attention and complete empathy response, Self soothing is a critical life skill for our children to learn too. When you notice yourself reacting and beginning to take on their emotions, breathe deeply, stretch your body, call a friend, light a candle, or do anything else that gives yourself a moment of pause before you respond. Lastly, remembering that this distressing moment is temporary and will pass can help you and your child to move through it more gently and with ease.