Raising Teens Is Tough When You’re an Empath Mom
I’ve always carried a lot of emotions with me at all times.
Grief, guilt, gratitude.
Love, pride, disdain.
Pain, frustration, happiness.
If you are physically around me, I’m probably carrying some of your emotional baggage as well.
If tears spring to your eyes, they’ll probably come to mine too. If you are maniacally laughing at something inappropriate, I’ll most likely join in, so you don’t feel awkward. If you are facing grief, it will transfer to my heart as well.
That’s what it’s like to be an empath, someone who is highly aware of the emotions of those around them, to the point of feeling those emotions themselves.
But merely saying “feeling” isn’t enough. I think the appropriate term would be absorbing others’ emotions–at least that’s how it feels for me.
What is an empath, and how do you know if you are one?
Most people experience some level of empathy — it helps us to better care for the people in our lives — but certain people experience a higher level of empathy. Psychologists refer to them as “empaths,” and these traits can be difficult to manage.
Dr. Judith Orloff, a pioneer in the field, describes empaths as those who absorb the world’s joys and stresses like “emotional sponges.”
In her book “The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People,” Orloff says empaths lack the filters most people use to protect themselves from excessive stimulation and can’t help but take in surrounding emotions and energies, whether they’re good, bad, or something in between.
To put it simply, it’s tough to know where your feelings begin and someone else’s ends.
But how do you know if you are an empath? Here are a few common traits:
- You take on others’ emotions as your own. This means you can “sense” how another person’s mood shifts, even if they aren’t showing it. But, more importantly, you start to absorb those emotions as your own.
- You are highly sensitive to your surroundings. Your energy is usually determined by the environment, so a peaceful or calm state will make you feel that way just as a chaotic event may break you down.
- You (desperately) need alone time to recharge.
- Tragic events in the news or social media or violence in shows can incapacitate you. Sometimes even a commercial can bring you to tears or ruin your day.
- People, even strangers, will tell you their problems or share intimate details with you. Empaths are the ones people often talk to in waiting rooms, grocery stores or in bathrooms.
- You have incredibly strong feelings about nature, pets, and babies. Yes, everyone likes these things, but the feelings are often stronger for empaths.
- You often feel called to problem-solve or help people in need.
- You often experience unexplained fatigue, which is usually the result of stressful situations.
- You are a human lie detector. An empath has a sixth sense for social cues and can pick up even the slightest change in behavior.
- You often put other people first, whether that is family, your team, or your employer.
- Close, intimate relationships (i.e., parenting) can be extremely overwhelming.
Raising teenagers as an empath can be especially difficult
Raising teenagers and being an empath can cause some serious challenges.
I tried to explain that to my kids recently, but I think I ended up sounding more like a crazed Jeff Foxworthy doing a comedy routine.
“You might be an empath if you burst into tears at the grocery store when you see an older woman struggling to move down the aisles.”
“You might be an empath if you sense a slight change in how a friend interacts with you, and you can’t shake it.”
“You might be an empath if you see a story of suffering on the news and you can’t let it go. It might keep you up all night.”
I think my three teenagers finally got it when I said: An empath doesn’t just feel for someone — they feel with someone.
Teenagers have a lot of emotions that empaths must manage
And when you have a teenager feeling big emotions all the time–or if you are like me and you have multiple teenagers–it can feel like an overwhelming amount of baggage to carry day in and day out.
It can be exhausting.
An empath’s greatest strength is the ability to understand and value their child’s emotions, according to Dr. Dana Dorfman, PhD, psychotherapist and co-host of the podcast 2 Moms on the Couch.
But caring deeply can make it hard to tell people when you approach the point of overwhelm.
With teenagers, self-care is so important. It’s a delicate balance of being there for them and taking care of your own needs because I often fail to consciously determine which strong emotions belong to them and which belong to me. This can be both a curse and a blessing as sometimes I think I exacerbate a situation, and sometimes I think I can be more compassionate.
It’s a process finding the middle road. For example, last Thanksgiving I hid in the bathroom at our small family dinner for five minutes of peace because all three of my kids were tired and frustrated and picking at each other. I could feel my chest tightening and the tears coming as I tried to solve all the problems and empathize and listen to all sides.
It was like each negative comment they made or barb they threw at me was another item I had to carry in my emotional suitcase that was about to tear at the seams.
So I took my book into the bathroom and read on the floor for about 15 minutes as it was the only quiet place I could find. After I cleared my head and gained perspective, I was ready to take them on again.
Other times I struggle with boundaries for my teens. Not so much with setting rules, but more keeping their drama in check, not taking things personally, and not responding to every one of their barbs.
And not wanting to fix all their problems.
Empathy can be beneficial when raising teens
In a 2016 study published in the journal American Psychological Association, the benefits and costs of empathy were examined in parent-teen relationships. Interestingly, teens benefited greatly from having parents who self-reported being highly empathetic to their teens’ needs. They had better emotional regulation.
However, the parents’ experiences were more complicated. They reported feeling confident in themselves and their parenting but also measured for higher systemic inflammation documented through blood draws. According to this research, the inflammation observed can be associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
As someone who has to practice meditation and walk a few miles daily to keep my heart from coming out of my chest, I can second that research.
But, understanding my empath behavior has helped me tremendously. I am now more attuned to my own feelings and try to assess if my stress and anxiety are because of how my kids are feeling or because of how I am feeling. This enables me to break some unhealthy patterns and focus more on taking care of my needs as well as my teenagers.
It’s not always perfect, but awareness is a big part of the battle.
Embracing my empath status as the mom of teens
Sometimes I wish I could set boundaries better or disconnect their emotions from mine, but an empath’s greatest strength is the ability to understand and value their child’s emotions–and that can be pretty great, too.
The problem is if you are an empath in this world right now, you are constantly on the struggle bus. Empaths need alone time and the opportunity to process emotions–and this can be a challenge for any parent.
Parents of teenagers are often in a constant state of stress. It’s worrying about their mental health and loneliness. It’s carrying their grief about the world around us. It’s feeling their frustration when we say no and managing their joy when something goes their way. It’s fear about the chaos in the world. It’s the pain of watching them grow up and leave the nest.
You. feel. it. all. You carry it. You absorb it into your heart and soul.
And then we have to learn how to let it go.
For some of us it’s harder than for others.
So, here’s to us empaths, hiding out in bathrooms and closets everywhere.
May we not dismiss the power of the feelings we carry, and may we use our powers for good whenever we can.
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