Childhood trauma is defined as the exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. Early exposure to childhood maltreatment has been proven to be correlated with fragile self-image, emotion regulation, unstable interpersonal relationships, heightened risk-taking behavior, and dissociative states (Gunderson & Links 2008) due to fears of abandonment and the long-term effects of derogation of self and/or others (American Psychiatric Association 2013). It has also been long understood that survivors of childhood trauma are at greater risk of developing psychological disorders later in their adulthood, but it is not as apparent what role early distress plays in one’s compassion and empathy. A person’s ability to empathize with others may be believed to be a result of prosocial behavior, but is it possible that it is really due to a prolonged experience of facing severe risks early on.
Exposure to traumatic events triggers the onset of the body’s biological stress response systems in which multiple interacting systems play to protect the individual from threats against homeostasis by the promotion of a fight or flight response. Following a traumatic event, the hypothalamus is activated, then the amygdala which detects fear and anxiety. Experiencing trauma during brain development is so harmful to individuals due to the disruption of these biological stress systems. The dysregulation of the Limbic-Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis which plays an important role in regulating stress, contributes to disruptive behaviors, comorbidity, substance use disorders, increased risk for immune dysregulation, and poorer cognitive and social function (De Bellis & Zisk 2014).
A common tool that has been used to study empathetic concern is the assessment of empathy for another person’s physical pain (Eisenberger et al. 2003). Using this method, empathetic sensitivity between children of chronically depressed mothers and children of nondepressed mothers were found to have very different results. Those whose mothers were depressed for 3 years of the child’s lifetime displayed higher levels of negative emotions in response to their mother’s sadness and anger (Tully, Donohue 2017). Early experiences involving emotional neglect such as with mother’s depression, may confer risk for internalizing inaccurate beliefs of emotional responsibility.
On a similar note, patients with bipolar disorder tended to misclassify happy facial emotions as angry in a similar emotion classification task. These patients showed increased sensitivity regarding negative emotions by expressing an attentional bias towards fearful faces, but an avoidant attitude towards those that were angry. Additionally, chronic maternal depression was found to have long-term negative consequences for infant development as these children were found to be less socially engaging and empathetic in response to the stress of others (Apter-Levy et al 2013). Those growing up in maternal depression lived in low-oxytocin environments which made them four times more likely to develop an axis I disorder and have lower empathy levels and greater probability of disorders of social dysfunctions. It is important to note that in this case study, children displayed lower levels of empathy because of their mother’s depression, perhaps due to being accustomed to constantly seeing faces displaying negative or fearful emotions and being less likely to develop a social, empathetic relationship with others. Furthermore, it was found that oxytocin administration to a parent boosted the oxytocin production of both the parent and child during the critical period of the child’s development.
Understanding the psychological and biological effects of early childhood trauma provides beneficial information to be applied in clinical settings. Ensuring a safe environment for young patients along with proper treatments, especially using noninvasive tests and biomarkers, would aid in the prevention and treatment of child victims. Future research should examine whether low empathetic respondings to a depressed mother’s emotions are due to internalized feelings of detachment and the interaction of oxytocin on neurochemical systems. This will allow us to understand how emotional neglect during childhood interacts with empathic concern. Better diagnostic tools should also be developed for early identification of childhood maltreatment to help the child better adapt to social interactions outside of their home environment.
Apter-Levy et al 2013. Impact of maternal depression across the first 6 years of life on the child's mental health, social engagement, and empathy: The moderating role of oxytocin.
American Psychiatric Association 2013. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition.
De Bellis & Zisk 2014. The Biological Effect of Childhood Trauma.
Eisenberger et al. 2003. Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion.
Gunderson & Links 2008. Borderline personality disorder: A clinical guide, 2nd ed.
Tully, Donohue 2017. Empathic responses to mother’s emotions predict internalizing problems in children of depressed mothers.