Study Reveals Children Who Experience Trauma Grow to Be Adults With Greater Empathy

By November 26, 2018 Psychology, Trauma

With approximately 60% of Americans reporting that they experienced some form of abuse or ‘difficult family circumstances’ as a child, the reality of childhood trauma is one that many have lived through first hand. While we have long connected these experiences with difficulties and struggles in adulthood, a new study reveals that the long-term effects may not all be negative.

David M. Greenberg of the University of Cambridge and City University of New York and his team of researchers set out to better understand the long-term impact of childhood trauma and the potential that its victims may still have for positive growth and change in light of their experience. Greenberg explained that “my experiences doing clinical work as a psychotherapist with children and adults inspired this research.”

The study involved two separate rounds of testing. In the first, a group of 387 adult participants were each asked questions about their past, investigating whether or not they had experienced a childhood trauma such as the divorce in the family, death of a loved one, or childhood abuse of any form. The same group was then asked to complete an ‘Empathy Quotient’ test, designed to understand the level of empathy that the participants each possessed. This information was then analyzed for patterns, looking to discover if there was any connection between the trauma they experienced as a child and their levels of empathy as an adult.

These team then conducted a second round of testing with a group of 442 participants, this time using a different form of testing as a means of either disproving or supporting the results from the first experiment. This time they used the ‘Interpersonal Reactivity Index’, a tool used by psychologists to measure the levels of empathy of a person across a number of different personal dimensions.

When the results of the two tests were compared, their findings revealed that those who reported experience trauma as a child received higher empathy scores than the participants whose childhood did not include any evidence of trauma. Interestingly enough, however, the first test only showed an increase in affective empathy, while the second test also reflected a change in cognitive empathy.

“Cognitive empathy (also referred to as ‘mentalizing’) is the ability to understand another’s thoughts and feelings, whereas affective empathy is the ability to respond to another person’s mental state with an appropriate emotion,” the study explained. Further study would be required to determine whether this was merely an inconsistency between the two tests, or if there is something deeper and more meaningful about these findings.

Ultimately, however, the study concluded that there was a definitive connection between childhood trauma and increased levels of empathy as an adult. In no way does this make up for or excuse the experiences that children live through when faced with trauma, however, the researchers hope that it will provide some hope for those that are working to overcome the trauma of their own pasts. By understanding these connections, victims of childhood trauma can tap into these skills and work towards a better and more promising future.


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