4 Signs Your Child Is an Empath—and How to Parent an Emotionally or Physically Sensitive Child
When my daughter was a few weeks old, I took her to a new moms group in a coffee shop. While all the other newborns were quietly snoozing or nursing, my daughter was screaming. I took her outside and she calmed down immediately.
When she was 2, her sensitivities intensified. She was quirky. She had an imaginary friend, was picky about clothes and food, and loved to be outside—especially on the beach. However, much of her behavior was more "intense" than other kids her age. She had massive meltdowns and often had conflicts with other children.
I took her to the pediatrician and she was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and, later, anxiety. We were able to get her into therapy and she found many coping tools for how to make her world more manageable.
Even after she learned to regulate, I suspected there was something more to it than a simple diagnosis. I began to research what it means to be an empath. My daughter fit the profile, and, to best support her, I needed to adjust my parenting.
What Is an Empath?
"Being an empath is not the same thing as a person who simply is empathic," says Antesa Jensen, an emotional intelligence expert originally based in Seattle but currently residing in Denmark. "Empathy is the ability to feel what other people are feeling. Being an empath means that you feel other people's feelings as though they were your own."
Shana Feibel, D.O., psychiatrist and assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, adds, "Empaths commonly feel what others feel. If they see others suffering, they can begin suffering themselves."
Being an empath is not a diagnosis in DSM-5, what mental health professionals use to diagnose mental disorders. But research has shown that 1 to 2 percent of the population are empaths.
There are mainly two types of empaths—physical empaths and emotional empaths—and a myriad of subcategories. Physical empaths feel other people's energy, symptoms, and pain as their own. Dr. Feibel says these empaths "may also have somatic complaints, such as headaches, stomachaches, and diarrhea." More commonly discussed, though, are emotional empaths. "Empaths are emotional sponges who tend to soak up the stress of the world, their parents' stress, and stress of friends," says Judith Orloff, M.D., a psychiatrist and author of The Empath's Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, who describes herself as an empath.
Signs Your Child Is An Empath
I was a skeptic about the whole "empath" idea until my daughter's therapist started talking to her about her "gold medal heart" that feels everyone's feelings. For my daughter, who is now 6, the ability to feel other people's pain, joy, and anxiety was the main sign she is an empath. She's also very sensitive to external stimuli, such as strong flavors, crowds, and bad smells. Her imaginary friend, Janie, still visits, and my child is never so happy as when she's around water of any kind. She is easily exhausted and still naps. She and our pandemic puppy have a special bond and take naps together every day. This all makes sense as the below are four big signs of an empath.
The most common sign your child may be an empath is that they are sensitive, both physically and emotionally. They often show many of the signs of a highly sensitive person such as hating tags in shirts or loud noises. Empaths have their feelings hurt easily but can also have unusually mature insights about the world.
A need for extra alone time
Another sign is the feeling of being different from other children. A little kid might, as Dr. Orloff says, like "a lot of alone time and may have imaginary playmates," like my daughter. An older child "may be a loner or prefer to be with a best friend or just a few people." She says empaths "may not prefer team sports."
Intensely feeling the pain of others
While seeing others struggle may make any child upset, it can hit empaths very hard. Take bullying, for example. "Even if they are not the ones being bullied, they will still struggle when they see it happening," says Dr. Feibel. "This could make the older child become more anxious and/or depressed. They may also tend to isolate more and even become irritable or moody."
Difficulty handling emotions
Empaths have a hard time calming down. They take longer than other kids to wind down after an emotionally stimulating day. "They can appear very tired and drained, especially after school," says Dr. Feibel.
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How to Parent an Empath
Parenting an empath, especially if you are also sensitive or an empath yourself, can be exhausting. Jensen says empaths "tend to relate first to and address or attempt to manage and control other people's emotions before their own." The cliche about putting on your oxygen mask first especially applies in the case of sensitive people.
Help them manage stress
Teach your kid self-care strategies and mindfulness techniques to help them calm down. My daughter learned several deep breathing exercises from her occupational therapist. Reach out to local resources like your pediatrician or a children's mental health care provider to get more information on how to access these skill-building tools for your child.
Make sure to also check on your own stress level, too. Only when you are centered can you adequately take care of your empath. This is so they don't also feel your stress.
Teach them to set boundaries
Jensen says empaths have "a big heart" which can lead to them having "a hard time setting boundaries or saying 'no' to requests." Encourage your child to set healthy boundaries as they get older and invite them to check in with themselves often. Model this behavior.
Keep their calendar light
Don't overbook their schedule either. "Give your child enough alone time and don't overschedule them with activities," says Dr. Orloff. This one may be hard in the fast-paced world of parenting today, but it's OK to let your kid be bored. I planned no extracurriculars the year my daughter started kindergarten. Some of her friends were rushing off to piano and dance after school, but we were happier playing on the playground or reading at home.
Drown out the noise
Manage loud, busy scenarios for your child as much as possible. Dr. Feibel says empaths "may need to go to stores during times when there are less people and avoid concerts or crowds." My daughter has a particularly hard time with birthday parties at friends' houses, so I sometimes check in with the parents beforehand and warn them that we may suddenly need to leave. We've also taken breaks during playdates or parties to go puddle jump or snuggle in a bedroom no one is using.
"Encourage their sensitivities and teach them about what being an empath means," advises Dr. Orloff. "Do not tell them they are 'overly sensitive' and need to change." She emphasizes referring to what your child is feeling as a gift. She adds, "Have an ongoing supportive dialogue about their sensitivities and tell them they can come to you anytime to discuss."
Surround them with positivity
Finally, surround yourself with people who give you and your child positive energy. Your empath will thank you for giving them a loving, supportive village. My daughter had a great preschool experience. The teachers "got" her and learned her cues to preempt when she was feeling overwhelmed by everyone else's big feelings. At rest time, they built her a fort of mats and she retreated to her "cave."
Through education, practice, and lots of cuddles, I have come to understand my little empath. She may struggle with the weight of the world sometimes, but she is the most fiercely loving human I've ever met. If you're gifted with a child who is an empath, you're likely a bit exhausted, but also so, so lucky.