Empathy is the ability to recognise another person’s thoughts and feelings, and experience an appropriate emotion in response. It’s a fundamental part of the human experience that lays the foundations for social skills and positive relationships with others.
Childhood trauma can have a big impact on the emotional and social development of a young person. During childhood, young people are growing both psychologically and biologically. When distressing events happen in this time, the consequences can be far-reaching, staying with a young person into their adult life.
In recent years, researchers have started to explore the relationship between childhood trauma and empathy. This relationship is important, especially since a lack of empathy is associated with certain personality disorders and antisocial behaviours. Until today, the picture remains unclear. Researchers have presented mixed results, with some studies finding that childhood trauma makes people more empathetic, and others less.
In this blog, we explain a bit more about what empathy is and how it might be affected by childhood trauma. We outline the results of some of the most important research to this day and how we can move forward.
Del Prette and Del Prette (2013) define empathy as the “ability to understand and feel what someone feels in a situation of affective demand, adequately communicating such understanding and feeling”. Psychologists usually describe three types of empathy: affective empathy, cognitive empathy, and compassionate empathy.
Affective empathy is about responding to another person’s thoughts or feelings with an appropriate emotion. It might mean feeling sad when you know that a friend is struggling or feeling happy when they are celebrating success.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to imagine what things are like from their perspective. It can also involve thinking about how they might behave based on their inner experience.
Compassionate empathy is about responding to another person’s mental space. It might constitute the desire to act and help someone in distress or to comfort someone who is feeling down.
Why Might Childhood Trauma Affect Empathy?
Childhood trauma describes serious and distressing events that affect a person during their childhood. It might involve emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, neglect, or experiencing the death of a loved one. Childhood trauma can be a single event or a long series of distressing experiences.
Research has well established that childhood trauma can have a lasting effect on a young person during the rest of their childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Children who experience emotional abuse are more likely to be emotionally unstable as adults, affecting their ability to form loving relationships, describe their emotions, and maintain good mental and physical health. Young people who have experienced trauma are more likely to develop depression, borderline personality disorder, and other mental health disorders later on in life.
Based on our knowledge of childhood trauma and how we develop empathy, it makes sense that early traumatic events can affect our ability to empathise. When someone experiences trauma, they become more attentive to emotions and environmental cues. Trauma can also cause the amygdala (a region of the brain most closely involved with emotions, emotional behaviour, and motivation) to become hyperactive, affecting the way a person understands and responds to others’ emotions.
Exploring the Relationship Between Childhood Trauma and Empathy
While several studies have found a significant relationship between childhood trauma and empathy during adulthood, it’s still not clear which way the relationship goes. Some studies have found that childhood trauma makes adults more likely to be empathetic, while other results show that childhood trauma is associated with less empathy.
Childhood Trauma and Increased Empathy
In 2018, Greenberg et al. published a research paper that explored empathy levels among adults, some who had experienced childhood trauma and some who had not. They found that in two different samples, adults who had experienced trauma in their early years tended to have higher levels of empathy than those who had not, particularly affective empathy. What’s more, people who had experienced more severe trauma were more empathetic than those who survived less severe events.
While their research didn’t address the psychological mechanisms behind this relationship, the authors offer some ideas. They suggest that increased attentiveness to emotions in the aftermath of traumatic experiences may improve people’s ability to recognise and understand emotions. They also recognise that many factors may affect the pathway from a traumatic event to changes in empathy, including biological factors and external events, such as support from others. Further research should explore how these pathways might work.
The authors suggest that their results fit into other research surrounding trauma, empathy, and compassion. Previous studies have found that people who have suffered difficult life events are more likely to want to help others, and that this relationship is mediated by empathy. Other studies show that adversity can increase both empathy and compassion for others.
Childhood Trauma and Decreased Empathy
Conversely, several research papers have found the opposite result to Greenberg’s study: that childhood trauma decreases empathy skills. In 2023, Cerqueira and Almeida found that childhood adversity was associated with lower empathy, as well as more difficulty recognising and describing their own emotions.
Their results show that, on average:
- people who had experienced emotional abuse in childhood showed less empathetic concern
- those who experienced physical abuse or emotional neglect found it more difficult to take another person’s perspective
- those who experienced emotional neglect found it more difficult to identify their feelings, distinguish them from bodily emotions, and describe the feelings of others
Cerqueira and Almeida’s results are supported by other research on empathy and childhood trauma. Studies that have looked into levels of empathy among criminal offenders have found that young people who experienced childhood abuse showed fewer signs of empathy and more psychopathic traits.
Other research points to how parental attachments may shape the way empathy develops in the brain. One study found that female adolescents with higher-quality attachments to their parents had higher levels of affective and cognitive empathy (and male adolescents had higher levels of affective empathy). Many children who experience trauma have disrupted or dysfunctional relationships with their caregivers, including separation, loss of a parent, neglect, or abuse. This may affect their ability to develop empathy for others.
Moving Forward: Further Research and Clinical Support
The conflicting results of studies show the need for more research into the relationship between childhood empathy and trauma. The research of both Cerqueira and Almeida (2023) and Greenberg et al. (2018) has certain limitations. Both studies have relatively small sample sizes and a disproportionate amount of female respondents.
Greenberg et al. acknowledge that more people in their sample experienced childhood trauma than is expected, raising questions about the subjectivity of each person’s experience and what they consider a traumatic event. Further research with larger and more representative samples may help us to gain a clearer picture of the relationship between childhood trauma and empathy.
Whatever the relationship of empathy to childhood trauma – as a protective factor that may alleviate some of the negative effects of childhood trauma or as another obstacle for survivors of trauma to overcome – it’s crucial that young people and adults who have experienced trauma receive the support that they require.
Childhood trauma can have long-term effects on a young person’s ability to enjoy and thrive in the world, affecting their mental health and relationships with others into adulthood. In many cases, trauma-focused treatment and other interventions are necessary to help young people heal from trauma and live life to its full.
The Wave Clinic: Trauma-Focused Recovery Programs for Young People
The Wave Clinic offers transformative recovery programs for young people, supporting them to plan and build better futures. Our whole-person approach combines exceptional clinical care with experiences, community work, education, and an international gap year, guiding young people on a journey of self-discovery, skill building, and inner healing.
Our programs are trauma-focused, working with young people to identify past events that shape how they interact with themselves and the world today. We understand that trauma affects both the mind and the body, combining therapies and experiences that allow both to heal. Our team is made up of experts in adolescent and teenage mental health from around the world who know how to handle the most difficult situations safely and sensitively.
If you want to know more about our programs, contact us today. We’re here to make a difference in the lives of young people and their families.