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Can A Parent Have Too Much Empathy?

Which line of work do you think parenting is most like?

  1. CEO of a corporation
  2. Teacher
  3. Tightrope walker
  4. All Of The Above

Well, of course, the answer is #4. But as a psychologist and as a parent myself, I have witnessed many different ways that the complex job of parenting can be done well and not-so-well. And I have observed that option #3, tightrope walker, is the one parents actually struggle with the most.

Parenting requires us to walk many lines very carefully. We need to discipline our children just enough, but not too much. We need to help our children just enough, but not too much. We need to teach our children about the dangers of the world just enough, but not too much.

Most parents are mindful of these delicate balancing acts somewhere in the backs or the fronts of their minds. But one balancing act is by far the most confusing and difficult to manage.


Empathy happens when you literally feel another person’s feelings along with them. Empathy is a tremendous force for good in the world, connecting humanity in many essential ways that nurture and protect humankind.

In fact, empathy is so good that how could there ever be too much of it? Especially when it is a parent feeling the feelings of his or her child?

In my first book Running on Empty, I said, “A parent without empathy is like a surgeon operating with dull tools in poor lighting. The results are likely to produce scarring.” And the reverse is also true. A parent with true empathy for his child is teaching that child many valuable life lessons.

  • You and I are connected in a deep and meaningful way.
  • I understand you.
  • I care about you.
  • Your feelings are important, and they matter to me.
  • I am here for you.

Week after week in this Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) Blog I emphasize the importance of these life lessons. They are indeed some of the most powerful tools parents have to prevent CEN in their children.

But of course, nothing in this world is so good that you can never have too much of it. Many vital and healthy resources that contribute greatly to your life can harm you in excessive quantities: think water, food, vitamins, and yes, even money.

3 Examples Of Excessive Parental Empathy Harming The Child

  1. Your empathy gives your child’s feelings too much power.
  2. Your empathy makes it too hard to set appropriate limits for your child.
  3. Your empathy makes you lose touch with yourself and your own feelings and needs.

These 3 imbalances happen more often in parent/child relationships than you would ever think. If you grew up with parents who under-attended to your feelings and you are trying to correct this in your own parenting, you may find it difficult to strike the right balance. Having grown up with a paucity of empathy (CEN), you now find it difficult to judge how much to give your kids.

Follow These 3 Guidelines To Keep Your Empathy In Check

  1. Keep in mind that empathy is not enough. Your job as a parent is not only to feel your child’s feelings but also to teach your child how to manage her feelings. So empathy is a great start. Then step in to teach your child how to calibrate his anger, balance his sadness, or understand his own hurt, for example. Through this process, your child will learn that his feelings matter, but they do not run the show. (If you lack these skills yourself, it’s OK. You can learn them!)
  2. Set “empathic limits” as your goal. Be aware that when you are feeling your child’s feelings it is harder to set limits. But your child needs limits in order to learn how to manage her behavior. Example: “I understand that you’re angry. I really do. But you still need to finish your homework before you go to the pool with your friends.”
  3. Know that being aware of your own feelings and emotional needs makes you a better parent. Getting lost in your child’s feelings does not help your child. Keeping the healthy boundary between your child and yourself allows you to be more helpful to your child. It also sends an important subliminal message that your child will receive every single day: your feelings are important, but others’ feelings are too.

Emotionally neglectful parents inadvertently teach their children to neglect their own emotions.

As a parent when you pay attention to your own feelings and emotional needs, you are inadvertently teaching your child to do the same for himself.

Empathy? Check.

Limits? Check.

My own feelings? Check.

Congratulations! You are walking the tightrope.

CEN can be subtle and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out if you grew up with CEN, Take the CEN Questionnaire.

To learn more about healing yourself and parenting your children free from emotional neglect, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

Can A Parent Have Too Much Empathy?

Jonice Webb PhD

Jonice Webb, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who is recognized worldwide for her groundbreaking work in defining, describing, and calling attention to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). She writes, speaks, and trains therapists on the topic, and is the bestselling author of two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. She also created and runs the Fuel Up For Life Online CEN Recovery Program. Since CEN can be difficult to see and remember, Dr. Webb created the CEN Questionnaire and other free resources to help you figure out if you have it. Take the CEN Questionnaire and learn much more about CEN, how it happens, and how to heal it at her website

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APA Reference
Webb PhD, J. (2018). Can A Parent Have Too Much Empathy?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 8 Jun 2018
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