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The Downside of Empathy: Protecting Your Daughter’s Mental Health

Kylie showed up to our session distraught. Her best friend Maya was going through a rough patch and clearly crying out for help. With her parents going through a divorce, Maya had started skipping classes and drinking heavily at parties. Kylie was so worried about her friend that she lost sleep thinking about how to help Maya, especially since Maya’s parents didn’t seem to be as concerned about her behavior as Kylie thought they should be.

I wish I could say this was the first time a teen client of mine wanted to use their session to solve a concern about or issue going on with their friends. Empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is a beautiful gift to possess and much-needed in our world. But there is a downside to empathy. It can also be a double-edged sword when not channeled appropriately—especially for girls.

According to Rachel Simmons, author of Enough As She Is, girls are “more likely to define themselves in terms of their relationships, think about them more than boys, and put greater weight on them, making their self-esteem vulnerable to how stable or troubled their relationships are.”

While empathy certainly serves girls well as they seek to build and strengthen relationships, too much empathy can also be a huge source of stress in their lives. So how do we avoid the downside of empathy and help girls maintain empathy while also protecting their mental and emotional health?

How to Manage Too Much Empathy:

1. Help her identify when she’s taking on too much

Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re carrying others’ burdens until we’re already burned out. For me, this manifests physically. I hold lots of tension in my jaw and neck, which triggers migraines and is a red flag that I’ve taken on too much. So how does this affect your daughter? Does she lose sleep? Does she get head- or stomach aches? Does she have a hard time focusing because she can’t stop thinking about a particular person or social interaction? Helping her become aware of her emotional state  is the first step to proactively balancing and protecting it.

2. Give her space

Many empaths tend to absorb other peoples’ energy. Just physically being around people all day can be overwhelming, which quarantine has certainly exacerbated. If your daughter is easily affected by her environment, make sure you’re giving her plenty of solo, quiet downtime—without her phone! Parents often worry about how much time teens spend alone in their rooms, but for empaths, this is critical for recharging and avoiding the downside of empathy.

3. Limit negative content consumption

Social media is great for connecting with friends, but only to a certain extent. Because empathy drives us to worry, being constantly bombarded by negative information in the form of teen drama is a fast track to increasing stress and anxiety levels. One way to help girls reduce how much time they spend on their phones is to set screen time limits tailored to certain apps. They may resist this at first until they realize how much better they feel once they reduce all the noise.

4. Help her set boundaries

There’s a big difference between feeling with someone and feeling responsible for how someone is feeling. Feeling responsible is the downside of empathy. For girls who take on others’ emotions, it’s important that they understand the difference between healthy support and carrying someone else’s burden. For instance, your daughter has a friend whose parents are getting divorced. Her being a good friend might mean she’s available to listen and be a sounding board, but it doesn’t mean she should feel responsible for fixing her friend’s sadness or picking up her phone when she’s supposed to be sleeping. She can control when and how she shows up for others, and sometimes it’s necessary to limit that for self-preservation.

5. Find a healthy way for her to channel her feelings

Because empaths feel so much and so deeply, it’s crucial they have a place to process and put those feelings. For some girls, this may be through journaling, playing an instrument, writing poetry, or drawing. Creative outlets are a healthy and restorative way to release painful emotions. Empathy is also what fuels compassionate action. So getting involved in causes they care about can help girls channel feelings of sadness or despair into meaningful work. Writing letters to nursing homes, cooking for neighbors, or delivering groceries for the local food bank are great ways to get involved during the pandemic.

6. Find ways to replenish her reserves

As cliché as the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. The more drained you are, the less of you there is to give to others. Help your daughter identify what reduces her stress. Encourage her to regularly pursue those activities, whether it’s exercise, watching funny movies, listening to music, or snuggling with a pet.

Learning to manage empathy in teens is fundamental for leading a happier, healthier life. Encourage your daughter to take care of herself and “fill her cup” as needed. By focusing on her own needs, she’ll be better able to care for others too—and for empaths, that’s a win-win!

Names have been changed to protect the client’s privacy.

Sarah Kenny is a certified coach dedicated to empowering teen girls so they can more easily navigate the challenges of adolescence and thrive as happy, healthy young adults. This Austinite is an avid yogi, the mama of two fur babies, and a diehard Parks & Rec fan.

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