Sympathy vs. Empathy: why parents should know the difference

Indy Style

Research shows an ever-growing sense of entitlement in our youth, along with an exponential rise in bullying, despite anti bullying efforts.

Why? Because too frequently, parents confuse w sympathy w empathy.

Dr. Leonard, psychotherapist, explains the difference between the two.

1) Sympathy is feeling sorry for your child. When you feel sorry for your child, you tend to lower expectations, make concessions, and demand rules be changed for them. This creates a sense of entitlement in the child.

2) Empathy is emotional attunement.

  • It is when the parent puts themselves in their child’s shoes for a moment to try and understand what they are feeling.
  • When the parent resonates w the child’s feelings and honors the child’s feelings, the child immediately feels understood and connected to the parent. The child does not feel alone.
  • This allows the child to quickly metabolize the difficult feelings and move forward. Empathy never requires that rules be changed, expectations be lowered, or concessions be made. Empathy is healing in and of itself.

Example: A mom is driving her eight-year-old daughter home from tennis practice when her daughter says to her softly and sadly, “Mom, I was the worst one tonight. I was the first one out every time. I’m pretty sure I’m the worst one every night.”

Now, this is the last thing the mom wants to hear from her child after a long day. She realizes she has three choices:

1. Deny her daughter of her feelings (which is never okay) and say, “Oh no. You’re not the worst one. There are other kids worse than you.”

2. Sympathize with her and say, “You poor thing. I am going to talk to your coach tomorrow about this. He needs to change things. It doesn’t seem fair.”

3. Empathize with her feelings and lovingly say, “That hurts…. It hurts to feel like the worst one. I get it. I have felt like the worst one a lot in my life, and it stinks.” Then follow it with, “Stick with it, kiddo. It will get better. You’ll get better.”

Of course, choice number three wins. The empathy prevented the little girl from feeling alone in her hurt. She felt understood and connected to her mom, which immediately allowed her to metabolize the hurt feelings and begin to recover, stronger and more determined than before.

For more from Dr. Leonard, go to

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