The Role of Empathic Emotions in Caregiving
Caring for Pediatric Cancer Patients
This essay focuses on a particular kind of caregiving--parents caring for children who have pediatric cancer. Pediatric cancer requires extensive and costly involvement from the parents of the children, especially during the invasive and highly stressful treatments that are required to treat the disease. We view this caregiving as an example of a costly long-term investment and examine the causes and the consequences of differences in parents’ motives to engage in such actions. We have found that positively- valenced empathic responses ( i.e.,” empathic concern”) among parents immediately before treatments were associated with children experiencing less pain and distress during treatments, possibly because of how high empathic concern parents communicate with their children. Drawing on Selective Investment Theory we posit that empathic concern is an emotion regulating state that is coordinated by the social bonds proposed in the theory. That is, when parents are faced with a costly long-term investment, the emotions associated with empathic concern may serve to resolve the caregiving conflict between selfish and altruistic motives in favor of the latter. We also have found that children who are resilient and cope well with stressors elicit the highest levels empathic concern from their parents. Drawing on the concept of inclusive fitness, we suggest because parents who experience high levels of empathic concern are more effective helpers; this confers additional benefits on already resilient and adaptive children. This, in turn, increases the likelihood that the genetic characteristics associated with such altruistic behaviors will be present among the descendants of these caregivers. We present some preliminary data to support this argument.
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