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Empathy vs Sympathy: Do you care more about your child’s feelings or your own?

Bonnie Harris

Young Kids

Imagine a huge hole in the ground with Man A stuck at the bottom unable to escape. Man B walks nearby and hears Man A calling for help. Man B sees Man A at the bottom of the hole. He is so upset that he jumps in the hole with Man A. Now both are upset and both are stuck at the bottom of the hole. Man C walks by and hears both A and B calling for help. Man C tells them he will be back soon. Later, Man C arrives with a ladder.

There is a fine line between sympathy and empathy but learning the difference can make huge changes in your relationship with your child.

  • Empathy is about listening with understanding of the other’s experience. It directs attention to the person you are listening to.
  • Sympathy is about expressing a feeling in response to another’s experience. It directs attention to how you feel.

My favorite definition: Empathy is understanding the shoes someone else is walking in; sympathy is putting them on as if they belong to you.

Sympathy has its place but is more about the feelings of the sympathizer than the one being sympathized with. Empathy allows a certain detachment from the feelings so the empathizer is better able to help. Man B’s emotions got him stuck in the hole. Man C’s compassion left him able to see what was needed.

My mother was a professional sympathizer. Whenever I expressed having a problem, she responded, “Oh my poor dear. That’s so awful. You don’t really have to do that, do you?” Her sympathy was not helpful. As a matter of fact, I stopped sharing my problems with her, because I never got that she understood and then I had her feelings to deal with as well as my own problem.

When we sympathize with our children, we often cross a boundary and become enmeshed with our child’s problem. We may become overly protective and involved and try hard to fix or take away our child’s problem.

Let’s say my child is having a problem with a classmate calling him names. When I sympathize, I get upset, resentful, or angry toward the name-caller and can lose sight of what my child needs. I then might make it my problem and call the teacher or offending child’s parent, getting angry and demanding restitution.

If I empathize with my child’s problem, I understand why he is upset, yet I am somewhat disengaged from the problem. I may be upset about the situation but more important is letting my child know that I understand his upset, so his feelings are normalized (empathy). “It’s got to be so hard when you hear that name. It must feel as if he’s putting you down.” Then it’s about my child-he can agree with my assumption or correct it. Conversation typically follows empathy, not so much with sympathy.

When I get equally upset about the problem (sympathy), I take responsibility and am more likely to tell him what to do about it-it’s more about me and my “rightness”, my idea of what he should do. “You need to tell him that you don’t like to be talked to like that. Ask him how he would feel if he got called that. Tell him you won’t invite him to your party if he’s going to treat you like that.” It’s me projecting myself into the situation and telling my child to fix it like I would.

When I empathize, I understand it is my child’s problem, and when I don’t try to fix it, I am much better able to help him figure out what he wants to do about it. Once he trusts that I know how he feels (empathy), I can then ask questions and offer suggestions that help him take charge of his problem the way he thinks best.

“What would you like to do about it?”

“Is there something you wish you could say to him?”

“What is it you want him to know?”

“How might you do that?”

Having good boundaries with your children means helping them take responsibility for their problems and find good solutions that work for them, not you. When I jump in the hole with my child because I feel his pain, I am not in the best position to help. I now expect my child to appreciate the sacrifice I have made to jump in the hole with him. When I leave my child with his pain to get the ladder, I bring him a tool to help him solve his own problem–with my support.

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Bonnie Harris

Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed. is the director of Connective Parenting and is an international speaker and parent educator. She has taught groups and coached parents privately for thirty years. Bonnie is the author of two books, "When Your Kids Push Your Buttons" and "Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With”. You can learn more about her work at or follow her on Facebook