Volume 114, Issue 3 p. 605-620
ARTICLE
Open Access

Empathy and parenthood: The moderating role of maternal trait empathy on parental burnout

Tamar Kadosh-Laor

Tamar Kadosh-Laor

Psychology Department, Ben Gurion University in the Negev, Beer-Sheva, Israel

Contribution: Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, ​Investigation, Methodology, Project administration, Validation, Writing - original draft, Writing - review & editing

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Liat Israeli-Ran

Liat Israeli-Ran

Psychology Department, Ben Gurion University in the Negev, Beer-Sheva, Israel

Contribution: Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, ​Investigation, Methodology, Project administration, Writing - review & editing

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Ido Shalev

Ido Shalev

Psychology Department, Ben Gurion University in the Negev, Beer-Sheva, Israel

Contribution: Data curation, Formal analysis, Methodology, Writing - review & editing

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Florina Uzefovsky

Corresponding Author

Florina Uzefovsky

Psychology Department, Ben Gurion University in the Negev, Beer-Sheva, Israel

Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience, Ben Gurion University in the Negev, Beer-Sheva, Israel

Correspondence

Florina Uzefovsky, Psychology Department, & Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience, Ben Gurion University in the Negev, Abraham Ben David Ohayon Behavioral Sciences Complex, Beer-Sheva 84105, Israel.

Email: [email protected]

Contribution: Conceptualization, Funding acquisition, ​Investigation, Methodology, Project administration, Supervision, Validation, Writing - original draft, Writing - review & editing

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First published: 27 February 2023

Abstract

The ability to empathize with others enables us to effectively interact with each other and may have specifically evolved to support parental roles and caregiving. The relationship between parenting and trait empathy is little understood as previous research focused on empathy exclusively in the context of parenting, for example parental sensitivity. Here we aimed to understand how trait empathy may moderate the association between child's negative emotionality and parental burnout. Two cohorts were examined (1) parents of infants (10–18 months old; N = 203) and (2) parents of children (3–10 years old, N = 201). Parents filled out a battery of online questionnaires assessing maternal empathy, parental burnout and child temperament. We found that the relationship between higher levels of negative emotionality and parental burnout is moderated by specific aspects of maternal emotional empathy. Our findings suggest that maternal emotional empathy acts as a buffer against parental burnout when faced with a child's characteristics that incur higher parental demands.

Key points

  • Caring for a child may be associated with increased stress and parental burnout.
  • Child's characteristics, such as child's negative emotionality, may exacerbate parenting demands.
  • However, the way a parent perceives the child's distress may buffer or exacerbate these effects. Thus, we examined parents' empathic concern and personal distress as characteristics which may moderate this relationship.
  • We used two samples - mothers of infants (10-18 months) and parents of children (3-10 years) to test this question.
  • Findings replicated across the two studies, supporting our hypotheses. That is, the positive association between negative emotionality and parental burnout is moderated by emotional empathy, with empathic concern buffering the effect of negative emotionality and personal distress exacerbating it.
  • The clinical implication is that empathic concern is a resource for parents when dealing with parenting-related stressors and should be the focus of interventions aimed at supporting parents.

BACKGROUND

The ability to understand others' mental and affective states is fundamental for understanding the social world around us. Empathy allows for effective communication including the ability to directly grasp others' feelings and intentions (Decety et al., 2016; Singer & Lamm, 2009). It has been argued that empathy evolved to support a range of prosocial behaviours, chief among them is parental care (Decety et al., 2016; Stern & Cassidy, 2018). Sharing and understanding the feelings of another allows to meet the other's needs, and previous research showed that child's empathy and maternal sensitivity may serve as protective factors for children (Manning et al., 2014; Miklikowska et al., 2011; Van der Graaff et al., 2012). However, little is known whether empathy can serve as a protective factor for parents. Caring for a child may be associated with increased stress and even parental burnout (Abidin, 1990; Mikolajczak et al., 2019), stemming, at least partially, from the need to facilitate regulation of the child's negative emotions (Williford et al., 2007). As maternal empathic ability allows the mother to understand the infant's motivations and feelings (Bowlby, 1958), it may also help alleviate the stress of negative feedback from her child (Ainsworth, 1969; Ho et al., 2014). Consistent with this, providing social support to a distressed other was found to be related to a decrease in the cortisol stress response (Konrath & Brown, 2013). As providing help to alleviate the other's distress may rely on empathic feelings, this supports the notion that focusing on another's needs can help attenuate one's own stress response. Thus, empathy may serve as a protective factor from parental burnout related to the need to regulate their children's negative emotionality. The current study aimed to empirically test this hypothesis by examining how different empathic responses may differentially buffer the association between children's negative emotionality and parental burnout.

Parental burnout

The term parental burnout refers to feelings of exhaustion and emotional distancing of parents from their children which are caused by high levels of stress evoked by childcare demands (Mikolajczak, Raes, et al., 2018; Mikolajczak & Roskam, 2018; Roskam et al., 2017). It includes three dimensions: emotional and physical exhaustion, the emotional distancing of parents from their children and loss of parental accomplishment (Roskam et al., 2017).

Parental burnout is considered to be chronic (Griffith, 2020; Mikolajczak & Roskam, 2018) and can be explained by the balance between risks and resources theory (Mikolajczak & Roskam, 2018). According to this theory, a perceived mismatch between caregiving demands and resources available to parents to deal with these demands leads to parental burnout (Mikolajczak & Roskam, 2018). Risk factors are those which significantly increase stress levels and resources are defined as protective factors that reduce stress (Mikolajczak & Roskam, 2018). Parental burnout has severe consequences for both parents and children. For example, it is related to higher partner's conflict and estrangement as well as neglect and aggression towards children (Mikolajczak, Brianda, et al., 2018; Mikolajczak, Raes, et al., 2018). Higher parental burnout can also impact the parent–child relationship as it relates to feelings of detachment from one's child (Mikolajczak et al., 2019, 2021). Thus, it is important to identify and better understand risk and protective factors that can increase or decrease parental burnout.

The theory suggests that protective factors include parental self-compassion, high emotional intelligence, good childrearing practices, time for leisure, positive co-parenting and external support and the risk factors include, parental perfectionism, low emotional intelligence, poor childrearing practices, abundance of parental duties and chores, lack of support from the co-parent and lack of external support (Mikolajczak, Brianda, et al., 2018; Mikolajczak, Raes, et al., 2018; Mikolajczak & Roskam, 2018). Findings support the theory, showing that lack of practical and social support (Lindström et al., 2011), leisure time (Lindström et al., 2011) and low income or unemployment (Lebert-Charron et al., 2018; Sorkkila & Aunola, 2020, 2022) all contribute to higher parental burnout. However, other factors may be related to parental burnout and are yet to be studied. Indeed, less research has been dedicated to understanding how the home environment, and in particular, the demands of caregiving, may also pose a risk factor (Le Vigouroux & Scola, 2018; Lindström et al., 2011; Mikolajczak, Brianda, et al., 2018; Mikolajczak, Raes, et al., 2018). The existing studies show that child's characteristics, parents' characteristics, parenting factors and family functioning are more strongly related to parental burnout than socio-demographic factors (Le Vigouroux & Scola, 2018; Mikolajczak, Brianda, et al., 2018; Mikolajczak, Raes, et al., 2018), emphasizing the need to further examine the role of parental and child characteristics that can lead to greater parental burnout. Here we focus on two components of affective empathy (empathic concern and personal distress) as the parental factor and the child's temperament, specifically, negative emotionality, as the child factor.

Child's negative emotionality as a risk factor

Temperament is a biologically based pattern of relatively stable tendencies to react to the environment (Wagers & Kiel, 2019) and is thought to be reflective of basic genetic tendencies (Rothbart et al., 1994). Temperament is defined as individual differences in reactivity and self-regulation (Rothbart et al., 1994). Of specific interest is the temperament dimension termed negative emotionality (NE), which is defined as the child's tendency to react to stressors with negatively valenced emotion, such as fear, sadness, anger or irritability (Rothbart et al., 1994). This is a type of distress that parents often face, needing to regulate it as part of their caregiving duties.

Temperament, especially the negative emotionality dimension, influences the quality of the parent–child relationship (Clark et al., 2000; Paulussen-Hoogeboom et al., 2008). Mothers of irritable compared to soothable infants report significantly less confidence, lower efficacy and more stress and depressive symptoms (Crockenberg & Leerkes, 2003). Specifically, one study found that mothers of 8-week-old infants with high negative emotionality have lower parental self-efficacy (Troutman et al., 2012). As a sense of inefficacy in the parenting role is one of the three dimensions of parental burnout (Mikolajczak & Roskam, 2018; Roskam et al., 2017), it is plausible that negative emotionality would be associated with parental burnout. Indeed, a study by Le Vigouroux and Scola (2018) found a positive association between parent's perceptions of their children as emotionally dysregulated, disagreeable, and non-conscientious and parental burnout.

Although many studies that focused on parenting abilities and parent–child relationship found that infants' high negative emotionality is associated with less sensitive and responsive parenting (Clark et al., 2000; Crockenberg & Leerkes, 2003; Troutman et al., 2012), other studies failed to find these relations. For example, van den Bloom & Hoeksma, (1994) reported that there were no differences in mothers' responsiveness to fussing and crying of their 6 months infants as a function of infant irritability, whereas Paulussen-Hoogeboom et al., (2008) found that parenting stress and child's sex moderated the relationship between child's negative emotionality and maternal sensitivity. One possible explanation for these findings may be that child's temperament and the characteristics of the caregiver, such as empathy, interact to affect the manifest caregiving behaviour (Clark et al., 2000; Crockenberg & Leerkes, 2003) and parental burnout.

Empathy as a protective factor

Empathy is a socio-emotional other-oriented emotional response, and it includes both cognitive and affective components (Roth-Hanania et al., 2011). The cognitive aspect of empathy, also termed perspective taking, entails an ability to understand the social situation, recognize another's emotions and infer what others are feeling (Davidov et al., 2021). The affective aspect of empathy can be divided into two main responses. The first is an empathic concern, an emotional response of compassion towards another's distress (Davidov et al., 2013, 2021), which requires the individual to experience an other-oriented emotional response (Knafo et al., 2008). The second is personal distress, which occurs when the person becomes overly aroused by the other's distress, and her focus of concern shifts from the other to the self (Davidov et al., 2013). As such, while both aspects reflect the emotional response to another's emotional display, they are often at odds with each other, showing differing relationships with various outcomes (Eisenberg & Eggum, 2009). Thus, the two empathy components lead us to differently perceive and respond to the social world around us.

One important and highly demanding aspect of our social lives is parenting, and empathy is theorized to have evolved to support parental roles and caregiving (Decety, 2011). As parenting involves recognizing and responding appropriately to childrens' and, in particular, infants' biological and emotional needs (Ainsworth, 1969; Bowlby, 2008), it is not surprising that empathy is considered a highly important element of parenting that promotes children's well-being (Bowlby, 1958.; Stern et al., 2015).

Studies suggest that empathy may serve as a protective factor for parents' well-being (Ho et al., 2014; Manczak et al., 2016). Of specific interest is a recent study showing that empathic concern for others (and self) predicted lower levels of parental burnout (Gerber et al., 2021). However, most studies examine empathy solely within the parent–child context, as part of the broader behavioural construct of sensitivity (Ainsworth, 1969), which is typically measured through observation and reflects the situational aspects of empathic concern. Thus, we know very little about how different components of trait empathy, referring to an individual's general and stable tendency to respond empathically to others' emotions, manifest in the context of parenting. The extant studies suggest that parents' empathy plays an important factor in the parent–child relationship, by moderating child and parent effects. For example, by buffering the effect of maternal stress on child behaviour problems (Walker & Cheng, 2007) and by moderating the effect of an intervention designed to decrease permissive parenting on child–peer interactions (Christopher et al., 2013). These studies, along with the theoretical definition of empathy, as a filter through which we comprehend and respond to the emotions of others, suggest that empathy may not only directly predict parental burnout, but that empathy may be important for how parents perceive their children's behaviour, and as such moderate these associations.

Conversely, personal distress reduces one's coping capacity and therefore might interfere with the parental ability (Le et al., 2017; Psychogiou et al., 2008). Parents who tend to respond with higher personal distress outside the parenting context, may also respond with elevated distress to their child's distress and become too self-preoccupied to effectively care for the child and help regulate the child's negative response. This can lead to parents feeling ineffective and incompetent in their parenting role (Psychogiou et al., 2008). One study found that parenting stress (defined as distress elicited by the parental role and due to childrearing-related experiences; Haskett et al., 2006), mediated the longitudinal association between parental negative affectivity and harsh parenting (Le et al., 2017). In line with that, other studies found that higher personal distress is related to child maltreatment (Meidan & Uzefovsky, 2020; Perez-Albeniz & de Paul, 2003; Wiehe, 2003).

Empathic concern and personal distress are both affective responses of empathy but, as previous research reveals, they relate to stress responses in opposite directions (Ho et al., 2014), and impact parental behaviours differently (Gerber et al., 2021; Le et al., 2017). Thus, we hypothesize that empathic concern will buffer the effects of a child's negative emotionality on components of parental burnout, while personal distress may exacerbate this relationship. To date, no prior work has directly compared the contributions of these two components of empathy to parental burnout. We aimed to do that in the current study.

The current study

The review above suggests that both child's negative emotionality and parental trait empathy are associated with parental burnout. Although empathy has been associated with helping behaviour and relationship quality (Decety et al., 2016), little research has evaluated the role of parents' trait empathy in the context of parent–child relationships (Stern et al., 2015). Furthermore, emotional empathy consists of two distinguishable aspects, empathic concern and personal distress. While the former may increase caregiving behaviour, the latter aspect of maternal empathy may increase the likelihood to experience negative emotions in response to infants' intensive crying (Crockenberg & Leerkes, 2003). Thus, it is important to understand how children's negative emotionality interacts differently with the two aspects of maternal empathy to predict parental burnout. As early childhood is considered a period that exposes parents to high parenting stress (Crockenberg & Leerkes, 2003; Williford et al., 2007), this study focuses on two developmental periods (Partridge & Lerner, 2007). The first is infancy, during which negative emotions are expressed non-verbally through distress cues, such as crying. The second is middle to late childhood, during which language skills and emotional regulation develop considerably (Cole et al., 2010), and thus negative emotions are expressed differently, necessitating different parental responses. (Kubicek & Emde, 2012). Based on the reviewed literature we hypothesized that (1) higher maternal empathic concern will buffer the effects of children's negative emotionality on parental burnout (e.g. lower emotional exhaustion and higher parental accomplishment); (2) Parents who tend to experience higher personal distress will be more susceptible to parental burnout (e.g. higher emotional exhaustion and lower parental accomplishment), even when the child shows low negative emotionality. While we examined the two aspects of parental burnout separately, we had no prior hypotheses regarding a differential association between emotional exhaustion and parental accomplishment.

GENERAL METHOD

The current studies are nested within two larger longitudinal studies of empathy development (Study 1) and empathy during the COVID-19 pandemic (Study 2). Both studies were approved by the Ben Gurion University  Internal Review Board.

Statistical approach

For both Studies, we first assessed the zero-point correlations between the study's variables using Pearson's correlation. Then, we mean centred the predicting variables and analysed two moderation models in which we examined the associations between negative emotionality and parental burnout (parental accomplishment and emotional exhaustion separately), and the moderating roles of the two empathic components: empathic concern and personal distress. Significant interactions were probed by examining low, medium and high levels, based on ±1SD from the mean. We controlled for mothers' and child's ages. As residuals of several variables deviated from normality, we conducted an aparametric inference analysis (see Tables S1 and S2, for Studies 1 and 2, respectively). As the results did not differ from the parametric inference analysis, here we report the parametric results. All analyses were carried out using R. Interactions were analysed using ‘interactions’ package (Long & Long, 2019).

STUDY 1

Participants

A cohort of 222 mothers of typically developing, 10–18 months old toddlers participated in the first wave of the larger study's data collection, which is the focus of the current study. The parental burnout inventory was added after n = 19 mothers already participated in the study, resulting in a final sample of 203 participants (mean maternal age = 32.1 ± 4.31 years, mean child age 13.65 ± 2.54 months, 48% female). Of note, to assure participants were paying attention, attention check items (e.g. ‘sometimes people do not read all the items. If you read this, please mark 4’) were added to the questionnaires. No participant failed the attention checks.

Procedure

Mother–infant dyads were invited to participate in an online study of socio-emotional development when infants were 10–18 months old. At Time 1, mothers were asked to fill out a battery of online questionnaires, and the dyads participated in an online observation session (observational data were not analysed as part of the current study). Dyads received 11 USD in the form of an electronic gift card. All participants gave informed consent before participation. For the purpose of the current study, we examined the following questionnaire measures.

Measures

  1. Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI; Davis, 1983). Measures emotional and cognitive empathy using 28 self-report items. Responses are rated on a 5-point scale from ‘does not describe me well’ to ‘describes me well’ and contain eight reverse-scored items. The questionnaire can be divided into four subscales, of which two were used in the current study. The two subscales assess different aspects of emotional empathy. The ‘empathic concern’ (EC) subscale assesses feelings of compassion and concern towards the other and the ‘personal distress’ (PD) subscale assesses the tendency to become distressed in response to other's distress. The other two subscales, perspective taking and fantasy, reflect cognitive empathy and were not analysed as part of this study due to our focus on emotional empathy. Cronbach's alpha reliability was .71 for EC and .72 for PD.
  2. Infant Behaviour Questionnaire-Revised very short form (IBQ-R; Gartstein & Rothbart, 2003). The IBQ-R is a parent-report measure of temperament for infants aged 3–12 months. It consists of 37 items each scored on a 7-point scale (1 = Never, 7 = Always, NA = Does not apply). Mothers were asked to report on the frequency of behaviours in the last 7 days. This yields three high-level temperament dimensions: surgency/extraversion, negative affectivity and effortful control. Cronbach's alpha reliability range was .58–.71.
  3. Parental Burnout Inventory (PBI; Roskam et al., 2017). The PBI assess aspects of burnout in the context of parenting. It consists of 22 items that can be divided into three subscales such as exhaustion, inefficacy and depersonalization. In the present study, only two subscales were used (12 items). In the interest of mitigating the burden of filling out questionnaires for parents as much as possible, we chose to focus on these two subscales, representing two aspects of parenting which we hypothesized to be most affected by the context of the pandemic. The parental exhaustion scale reflects feelings of tiredness related to one's parental role, which became much more intense during the pandemic, and the parental accomplishment scale reflects the perception of efficacy in the parental role, which was threatened by the pandemic (Mikolajczak & Roskam, 2018). The PBI assess the frequency of behaviours with a scale ranging from ‘never’ to ‘always/every-day’ on a 7-point scale. In our study, we used a 4-point scale (1 = rarely or never (less than one day), 2 = some or small part of the time (1-2 days), 3 = sometimes or often (3-4 days) and 4 = most or all the time (5–7 days)). Mothers were asked to rate how often they felt as described in the items over the past week. Cronbach's alpha reliability range was .8–.86.

Power analysis

A power analysis based on 5000 Monte-Carlo simulations conducted using the ‘simsem’ package (Pornprasertmanit et al., 2016), revealed a power of .78 assuming an interaction term of small-medium effect size (β = .15), for the most power restrictive model.

Results

Zero-order correlations between the study's variables are presented in Table 1.

TABLE 1. Zero-order correlations among study variables.
Variable 1 2 3 4 5
1.Negative emotionality
2. Emotional exhaustion .26***
3. Parental accomplishment −.15* −.42****
4. Empathic concern −.10 −.03 .20**
5. Personal distress .19** .18* −.12 .18**
  • ****p < .0001, ***p < .001, **p < .01, *p < .05.

To address our hypotheses that negative emotionality and empathy will interact to predict emotional exhaustion and parental accomplishment, we conducted multiple regression analyses. Results are presented in Table 2.

TABLE 2. Moderation analysis of the associations between negative emotionality and parental burnout.
Parameters Unstandardized coefficients Standardized beta SE p-value
Emotional exhaustion
Intercept 1.68 .00 .00 <.001***
Mother's age 0.01 .05 .07 .479
Empathic concern −0.01 <.001 .07 .942
Personal distress 0.14 .13 .07 .067
Negative emotionality 0.14 .24 .07 <.001***
Personal distress × Negative emotionality 0.21 .18 .07 .009**
Empathic concern × Negative emotionality −0.17 −.15 .07 .042*
Parental accomplishment
Intercept 3.34 .00 .00 <.001***
Mother's age −0.01 −.07 .07 .288
Empathic concern 0.22 .22 .07 .002**
Personal distress −0.13 −.14 .07 .057
Negative emotionality −0.05 −.10 .07 .184
Personal distress × Negative emotionality −0.04 −.04 .07 .613
Empathic concern × Negative emotionality −0.03 −.03 .07 .670
  • ***p < .001, **p < .01, *p < .05.

Emotional exhaustion

Maternal empathic concern interacted with child's negative emotionality to predict emotional exhaustion, such that the association between negative emotionality and emotional exhaustion becomes stronger when empathic concern decreases from high (β = .06, SE = .05, p = .26) to medium (β = .14, SE = .04, p = .00) to low (β = .22, SE = .06, p = .00) (see Figure 1a). Furthermore, maternal personal distress interacted with child's negative emotionality to predict emotional exhaustion, such that the association between negative emotionality and emotional exhaustion becomes stronger when personal distress increases from low (β = .03, SE = .06, p = .56), to medium (β = .14, SE = .04, p = .00) to high (β = .25, SE = .06, p = .00) (see Figure 1b).

Details are in the caption following the image
The significant interactions between child's negative emotionality and emotional exhaustion. Different plots are displayed for (a) Empathic concern and (b) Personal distress.

Parental accomplishment

Parental accomplishment was predicted only by empathic concern. No other main or interaction effects were observed.

STUDY 2

Participants

A cohort of 273 parents (mean 33.9 ± 5.6) of 0–10 years old children participated in the second time point of the larger study's data collection, during the second  lockdown in Israel (September 2020). Attention check items were treated similar to Study 1. Questionnaire responses with over 10% missing items were removed from analyses. Questionnaire responses with ≤10% missing data were completed with multiple imputations using the ‘mice’ package in R (Van Buuren & Groothuis-Oudshoorn, 2010). Fathers were excluded from the data analysis (n = 69) because of the small sample size and in order to make this sample comparable to the one used in Study 1. This resulted in a final sample of 201 mothers (mean maternal age = 33.37 ± 5.71 years, children aged 3–10 years, mean child age = 6.44 ± 1.21 years, 51% male).

Procedure

Participants were recruited via the Hamidgam inc., a survey company conducting online surveys in Israel. Participants filled out a battery of online questionnaires. Here we used measures of maternal empathy, parenting burnout and child temperament collected during a single time point. All participants gave informed consent before participation and were compensated according to the survey company's policy.

Measures

  1. Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI; Davis, 1983). Measure was the same as in Study 1. Cronbach's alpha reliability was .79 for EC and .73 for PD.
  2. Children's Behaviour Questionnaire-very short form (CBQ; Putnam & Rothbart, 2006). The CBQ is a parent-reported questionnaire assessing temperament for children aged 3–8 years, used to assess temperament in the Study 2 cohort. The CBQ consists of 36 items each scored on a 7-point scale (1 = extremely untrue of your child, 7= extremely true of your child, NA = Does not apply). Mothers were asked to rate their children on the frequency of the behaviour in the last 6 months. This yields three high-level temperament dimensions: surgency/extraversion, negative affectivity and effortful control. Note that the CBQ was used because the children in this study are older. Cronbach's alpha reliability range was .69–.79.
  3. Parental Burnout Inventory (PBI; Roskam et al., 2017). Measure was the same as in Study 1. Cronbach's alpha reliability range was .86–.91.

Power analysis

A power analysis based on 5000 Monte-Carlo simulations conducted using ‘simsem’ package (Pornprasertmanit et al., 2016), revealed power of .79 assuming an interaction term of small–medium effect size (β = .16), for the most power restrictive model.

Results

Zero-order correlations between the study's variables are presented in Table 3.

TABLE 3. Zero-order correlations among study variables.
Variable 1 2 3 4 5
1.Negative emotionality
2. Emotional exhaustion .29***
3. Parental accomplishment −.22** −.52****
4. Empathic concern .03 −.18* .30****
5. Personal distress .21** .47**** −.38**** −.17*
  • ****p < .0001, ***p < .001, **p < .01, *p < .05.

To address our hypothesis, that negative emotionality and empathy will interact to predict emotional exhaustion and parental accomplishment, we conducted multiple regression analyses. Results are presented in Table 4.

TABLE 4. Moderation analysis of the associations between negative emotionality and parental burnout.
Parameters Unstandardized coefficients Standardized Beta SE p-value
Emotional exhaustion
Intercept 7.08 .00 .00 <.001***
Mother's age 0.02 .04 .07 .582
Child's age 0.06 .03 .07 .726
Empathic concern −0.15 −.20 .07 .005**
Personal distress 0.30 .40 .07 <.001***
Negative emotionality 0.05 .19 .07 .007**
Personal distress × Negative emotionality 0.01 .16 .07 .022*
Empathic concern × Negative emotionality 0.00 .04 .07 .578
Parental accomplishment
Intercept 19.48 .00 .00 <.001***
Mother's age −0.02 −.03 .07 .648
Child's age −0.02 <.0001 .07 .945
Empathic concern 0.29 .30 .07 <.001***
Personal distress −0.29 −.30 .08 <.0010
Negative emotionality −0.05 −.15 .07 .046*
Personal distress × Negative emotionality −0.00 −.03 .07 .657
Empathic concern × Negative emotionality −0.00 −.01 .07 .887
  • ***p < .001, **p < .01, *p < .05.

Emotional exhaustion

Maternal personal distress interacted with child's negative emotionality to predict emotional exhaustion, such that the association between negative emotionality and emotional exhaustion becomes stronger when personal distress increases from low (β = .01, SE = .03, p = .69) to medium (β = .05, SE = .02, p = .01) to high (β = .10, SE = .03, p = .00) (see Figure 2b). Moreover, emotional exhaustion was predicted by maternal empathic concern (β = −.20, SE = .07, p = .005), maternal personal distress (β = .40, SE = .07, p = <.001) and child's negative emotionality (β = .19, SE = .07, p = .007).

Details are in the caption following the image
The association between child's negative emotionality and parental emotional exhaustion. Different plots are displayed for (a) Empathic concern, (b) Personal distress, as moderators of this relationship.

Parental accomplishment

Parental accomplishment was predicted by empathic concern, personal distress and child's negative emotionality. No interaction effects were observed.

Discussion

This study investigated how empathy and its components interact with child's negative emotionality to predict parental burnout. We found that the relationship between higher levels of negative emotionality and parental burnout is moderated by maternal emotional empathy. For mothers of 10–14-month-old infants, negative emotionality was associated with lower emotional exhaustion for mothers with medium or high levels of empathic concern and was associated with higher emotional exhaustion for mothers with medium or high levels of personal distress. For mothers of 3–10-year-old children, negative emotionality was associated with higher emotional exhaustion for mothers with medium or high levels of personal distress.

Our first hypothesis that empathic concern would moderate the association between child's negative emotionality and parental burnout was supported. Overall, we found that higher maternal empathic concern was associated with lower levels of emotional exhaustion. Higher empathic concern may allow the mother to empathically tolerate the stress of negative feedback from her child (Ainsworth, 1969; Ho et al., 2014). Indeed, one study found that parents with higher self-reported empathic concern showed lower physiological distress in response to infant cries (Mehrabian et al., 1988).

In addition, in the infant group (Study 1) we also found an interaction between empathic concern and child's negative emotionality, so that higher levels of empathic concern acted as a buffer against children's negative emotionality, but not so for lower levels of empathic concern. Indeed, in infancy, the mother–child relationship is based exclusively on non-verbal behaviour (Lenzi et al., 2009), therefore, the mother is required to heavily rely on her ability to interpret the infant's signals to understand her needs and respond appropriately. According to Bowlby's theory (Bowlby, 1958), it is maternal empathic ability that allows the mother to understand the infant's intentions, motivations and feelings. Our study suggests that this ability may be especially relevant to infants who are high in negative emotionality (Kiff et al., 2011). Indeed, toddlers with higher negative emotionality have lower language skills (Bloom et al., 1988; Kubicek & Emde, 2012), and therefore, parents may need to rely more strongly on their ability for empathic concern. High empathic concern mothers may view the infants' negative emotions as a challenge or as evidence of special need, focusing on the child's need and as such experience less parental burnout. In other words, when mothers experience their infant's negative emotionality with compassion (by virtue of their empathic concern), it can protect them from burnout in light of growing parental demands.

Interestingly, maternal empathic concern did not moderate the association between child's negative emotionality and emotional exhaustion for mothers of 3–10 years old children (Study 2). Instead, we only find the main effects of empathic concern and negative emotionality. This suggests that the relationship between maternal empathy and child's negative emotionality is age dependent. As children grow older they develop the ability to express their needs verbally (Fields-Olivieri & Cole, 2022). This may be at the root of the age effect. As negative emotionality is expressed verbally as well, parental burnout becomes directly linked to the intensity of these expressions. This developmental trend highlights the need to examine how the role of parents' empathy in their parenting changes based on the child's developing needs at different ages.

Our second hypothesis that maternal personal distress would moderate the association between child's negative emotionality and emotional exhaustion was also supported. Mothers with a higher tendency to experience personal distress had higher levels of emotional exhaustion. This is in line with past findings on the importance of empathy, and especially personal distress, in parental behaviours (Letourneau, 1981; Meidan & Uzefovsky, 2020; Stern et al., 2015). For example, maternal personal distress was found to be related to higher abuse risk (Meidan & Uzefovsky, 2020), so that mothers who experience more personal distress when encountering their child's distress may respond harshly to these emotional expressions. Brain imaging findings suggest a mechanism for this finding by showing that the hypothalamus and left amygdala are more active in participants who responded with personal distress to negative feedback from their child (Ho et al., 2014). As personal distress is a self-focused reaction (Eisenberg & Eggum, 2009), we suggest that mothers with greater tendencies to experience personal distress, especially when facing high rates of negative emotionality, would become too self-preoccupied to adopt the child's perspective, which in turn increases the likelihood to experience parental burnout.

Each emotional empathy component showed a different association with components of parental burnout further highlighting that emotional responses to others' emotions may take different forms (other vs. self-focused) and that these have different implications on social behaviour and cognition.

Taken together, our findings strengthen the notion that a person's individual characteristics and personality makeup are intimately related to and are reflected in parenting behaviours. More specifically, the findings suggest that trait empathy may serve as a protective or risk factor for parental burnout, and it will be beneficial if future studies further examine this notion. For example, how supporting parents' trait empathic abilities may be leveraged in an intervention to decrease parental burnout.

More broadly, the findings suggest that empathy serves as a filter through which we experience social interactions, especially emotionally taxing ones. This raises additional questions. For example, how can children's empathy buffer their experiences of abusive or neglectful parenting? What role does empathy play in romantic relationships in which one of the partners suffers from a mental or physical health condition? Based on the current findings we would expect that some individuals may cope better with the difficult relationship-specific situation because they tend to experience empathic concern more strongly than personal distress, allowing them to maintain a positive outlook on the difficulties stemming from the other's situation. This tendency may also provide a higher motivation for prosocial behaviours which alleviate the distress of the other (Gülseven et al., 2020; Williams et al., 2014). Indeed, studies find that higher empathic concern is related to romantic relationship satisfaction (Levesque et al., 2014; Van Niekerk et al., 2021) and that empathic concern protects against professional burnout in medical doctors and nurses (Gleichgerrcht & Decety, 2013; Lamothe et al., 2014).

One thing to consider is that reality and reality perception are not the same. It is plausible that empathy serves as a protective factor because it is used as a filter through which social cues are perceived. Parental empathic responses to their infants' distress are known to play a critical role in the child's attachment and socioemotional development (Bowlby, 1958.; Stern et al., 2015). Our research suggests that this type of parental behaviour can help promote healthy emotional connections between parents and their children. By empathizing with their child's feelings, parents may feel more connected and fulfilled in their role as a parent. This can help reduce stress and improve the overall emotional well-being of the parents. Here we show this for infants' and children's cues, but these effects may transcend the parent–child relationship, to romantic partners (Levesque et al., 2014; Van Niekerk et al., 2021), friends, physicians (Lamothe et al., 2014) and even strangers (Fraser et al., 2012).

Strengths and limitations

To our knowledge, this is the first study that examined the joint effect of child's negative emotionality and parental trait empathy on parental burnout. The use of two large and different age cohorts allowed us to examine this effect in two developmental periods, thus indirectly also examining developmental effects on this association.

However, some limitations are worth noting. First, all measures used in our study were self-report questionnaires which reflect the participants' perception of their own traits and functioning and their child's dispositional characteristics. However, as the study focused on parents' experiences, these self-report tools are appropriate. Nevertheless, future studies may benefit from measuring temperament and empathy using observations as well.

Second, the study is cross-sectional and therefore does not allow for to assess long-term developmental trajectories of the studied relationships. Yet, our use of two age cohorts allows us to hypothesize regarding how the role of empathy towards one's child changes with that child's development. This should further be studied in a longitudinal design, spanning infancy and early childhood.

In our studies, we made two changes to the Parental Burnout Inventory (PBI; Roskam et al., 2017). First, the original measure assesses the frequency of behaviours on a 7-point scale. In our studies, we used a 4-point scale in order to make all questionnaire response scales in our studies comparable and easier for parents to complete. This change makes it more difficult to compare the mean levels of burnout with other studies, and this should be taken into account. Second, the PBI includes a third subscale, termed depersonalization, which was not included here because of the specific focus of the study and with the goal of lessening the burden of filling out questionnaires for the parents (see Methods section). Future studies focusing on parental burnout should include this subscale to examine its specific relationship with children's temperament and parents' empathy.

Another important caveat is that maternal personality traits were not measured in our study. Previous studies found that high neuroticism is a risk factor for parental burnout (Le Vigouroux et al., 2017), and that higher personal distress coupled with neuroticism is a risk factor for elevated depressive symptoms (Lee, 2009). Thus, the relation between personal distress and parental burnout needs to be further examined taking into account additional parent characteristics.

Additionally, it is worth mentioning that data for both cohorts was collected during the COVID-19 pandemic (Griffith, 2020). During the pandemic, the Israeli government imposed self-isolation in order to avoid infection (Ministry of Health, 2020).  Parents had to take care of and homeschool their children while simultaneously working from home. This daily stress led to increased parental burnout (Griffith, 2020), thus it is possible that during the time of the study, parental burnout may be particularly exacerbated.

CONCLUSIONS

The current study shows that maternal empathic concern can protect from parental burnout in light of growing parental demands and that maternal personal distress can increase the likelihood to experience parental burnout. The implication is that maternal trait empathy may be one of the resources needed to handle parenting stress, and that this can and should be the focus of future interventions for increasing parenting resources.

AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS

Tamar Kadosh-Laor: Conceptualization; data curation; formal analysis; investigation; methodology; project administration; validation; writing – original draft; writing – review and editing. Liat Israeli-Ran: Conceptualization; data curation; formal analysis; investigation; methodology; project administration; writing – review and editing. Ido Shalev: Data curation; formal analysis; methodology; writing – review and editing. Florina Uzefovsky: Conceptualization; funding acquisition; investigation; methodology; project administration; supervision; validation; writing – original draft; writing – review and editing.

FUNDING INFORMATION

The study was funded by the Israel Science Foundation (grant number 561/18) and by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Ben Gurion University.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST STATEMENT

None to declare.

DATA AVAILABILITY STATEMENT

The data that support the findings of this study are openly available in the repository OSF at https://osf.io/cqxyj/?view_only=d5803c137b7b40c18543b6a5ddd949be.