The ability to perspective-take (cognitive awareness of another's state) and empathise (emotional/affective response) are important characteristics for sensitive, co-operative and constructive parenting, which assists in developing adaptive functioning for children. For the first time, immersive virtual reality was used to place parents in the position of a child in order to assess impact on perspective-taking and empathy. This novel study was conducted with 20 non-high risk Spanish mothers (a pilot study with 12 mothers is reported in supplementary files). Mothers were virtually embodied as a 4-year-old child, experienced from the first-person perspective and with virtual and real body movements synchronised. They interacted with a 'mother avatar', which responded either in a Positive or Negative way. Participants reported a strong body ownership illusion for the child body that led to cognitive, emotional and physical reactions. Experiencing negative maternal behavior increased levels of empathy. In addition, the Negative mother led to increased feelings of fear of violence. Physiological data indicated greater stress in the Negative than Positive condition. Although further research is required to assess the effectiveness of such methods, any improvement in empathy that leads to a change in parenting behavior has the potential to impact on developmental outcomes for children.
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