My son seeks me out a few days after we've returned home from visiting his great-grandmother. She is in good health, but six-year-old Sam knows she is getting older and sees more doctors than she used to. He's aware of the concept of death, and he is slightly fixated on it.
"I've decided that when Nanny dies, I don't want to know," he says. "I can believe she is always alive and that I just don't see her because we don't live in the same town. I won't be okay if I know she's gone for real." His words come out determined, like he has put thought into this decision.
"Sam, we have to learn how to get through things like that, even when they are hard," I say. "We can't put our heads in the sand. I couldn't lie to you anyway because I will be way too devastated to pretend nothing is wrong when we do lose Nanny."
He puts his face in his hands and speaks in a muffled tone.
"You're right. This was a bad plan. You will be hurting, and I will feel it just being near you even if you lie. It's going to hurt so much."
"It always hurts to lose someone."
"Yes, that, but also feeling you lose her. Mom, it's just going to be so bad. You love her so much." He is suddenly consumed, not by his future grief but by mine.
I don't have any reassuring words as I simply hold my son and reflect on the challenges and gifts that come with raising an empath.
In her book, "Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World," psychologist Dr. Michele Borba writes that we need our kids to be more empathetic. She points to research that says teenagers are almost 50 percent less empathetic than they were decades ago, and that's a problem.
Being empathetic makes it easier for us to engage in relationships and allows us to feel connected to others. For most people, empathy is a gateway to a better life with improved communication. However, being an empath is on a bit of a different level than just knowing how to empathize. The road for empaths is more complicated.
Empaths are defined as people who take on the feelings of others – literally feeling their pain or emotions. Imagine Professor X from the X-Men comics. He's a mutant with the super power of telepathy, but it could be argued that he is also an empath.
His ability to read other people's minds and experience their emotions drives his character in "X-Men: Days of Future Past" to use drugs to dull the anxiety and depression that come along with all of the feelings he absorbs.
He starts the drugs for other reasons but stays on them to dull pain. This makes sense. Kids who are empaths – also known as orchid children or highly sensitive kids – are more likely to suffer from substance abuse issues and depression, possibly because they absorb the good and the bad from others and have problems coping and so reach for other methods to tune out.
To truly empathize, a person has to truly feel, and Sam can get high on the giddiness of a friend or end up in tears when someone he loves is in any form of discomfort. The problem is he doesn't have an off switch and can end up a ball of anxiety simply because he feels too much.
Wired that way
It's been known for some time that psychopaths don't experience empathy. Studies of inmates who exhibited signs of psychopathic behavior revealed a disconnect when it came to feeling other people's emotions. Those who were highly psychopathic felt no pain when imagining bad things happening to others, proven by the fact that the parts of their brains wired for empathy did not light up.
Obviously, being capable of empathy is good, but empaths are on the other end of this spectrum. They feel the pain of others, and they absorb emotions like a sponge. It's exhausting, though it does make them good listeners and nurturers.
How do we introduce empaths to the world?
When bad things happen in the world, my husband and I hesitate to share details with Sam. We want to teach him that he can feel, help others, and still survive, but we fear him falling apart because of how hard it is for him to disconnect from someone else's pain.
We don't want to teach kids to be unempathetic, but how do we equip empaths to live in an imperfect environment without staying exhausted, stressed, and overwhelmingly sad? Empath and MD Judith Orloff has some tips:
1 | Teach kids meditation
Teaching empaths to meditate helps them slow down, become aware of their emotions, and work to regulate their behavior. Empaths should have meditation or stillness breaks sprinkled throughout their days. It may help them hit the reset button before they are too overwhelmed.
2 | Explain the power of no
It's necessary for empaths to protect their down time and know their limits. They shouldn't sign up to be in a large group of people for an entire day if they know the stress from feeling too much from others will drain them. Help empaths draw lines and shield themselves from too much stimulation when necessary.
3 | Teach them to choose friends wisely
Good and bad feelings are contagious for empaths, so that optimistic friend who builds others up and handles challenges constructively will be helpful for an empath.
Orloff warns that the opposite is true if an empath is around "emotional vampires." Being surrounded by companions full of fear, anger, or other negative feelings on a regular basis is damaging for empaths. They absorb the strong emotions, and they can actually feel harmed by them.
Teach kids to choose their closest companions wisely, and make sure they don't live in a house where unchecked anger is the norm.
Guide your empath
The world is one of beauty, but it is also full of evil and pain. It always will be, and empaths have to exist in this world without feeling the pressure Professor X did. We don't want to change empaths or teach them to be hard. They aren't weak, and their abilities allow them to feel beauty and appreciate goodness in a way that most of us can't. With a steady hand we can guide them to use their empath powers and take care of themselves at the same time.
Author Donna Lynn Hope asks the very relevant question, "The empath helps others by absorbing some of their pain, but who helps the empath?"
Those who love them do, by teaching them to embrace the superheroes they are.