Elevated empathy in adults following childhood trauma.
Traumatic events increase the risk of depression, but there is also evidence that adversity can lead to posttraumatic growth, including increased compassion and prosocial behavior. To date there is no empirical research pinpointing childhood trauma to an increase in trait empathy in adulthood. Although somewhat counter-intuitive, this might be predicted if trauma not only increases fear of future threat but also renders the individual more sensitive to suffering in others. We explored this possible link using multiple studies, self-report measures, and non-clinical samples. Results across samples and measures showed that, on average, adults who reported experiencing a traumatic event in childhood had elevated empathy levels compared to adults who did not experience a traumatic event. Further, the severity of the trauma correlated positively with various components of empathy. These findings suggest that the experience of a childhood trauma increases a person's ability to take the perspective of another and to understand their mental and emotional states, and that this impact is long-standing. Future research needs to test if this is seen on performance measures, and how these findings extend to clinical populations.