EARLY CHILDHOOD — Empathy Over Sympathy

By LaDonna Werth, Extension Educator, Holt–Boyd Counties

Sometimes it can be easy to intertwine empathy and sympathy, but they do not mean the same thing nor do they lead to the same feelings. When in an emotional situation, using empathy will result in a more positive response because it means to enter into one’s feelings and it leads us to a deeper understanding.

Sympathy usually sounds something like, “Well at least…” For example, let’s say a mother is frustrated her son is not getting the grades she was hoping for. Her friend then proceeds to say, “Well at least your daughter is excelling in school.” The friend’s response does not come from a place of understanding, and in turn, does not comfort the mother. It’s easier to just respond with sympathy because it does not require us to put ourselves into another’s shoes.

However, with your child and partner, the best outcome will come when you use empathy. Empathy actually calms the body, and in emotional situations, having relaxed conversations tend to lead to a better ending. In relationships, whether it is with your partner or your child, disagreements occur and there is not always a resolution because of different opinions, values, points of view, etc. If you use empathy during those conflicts, it shows you understand what they are feeling and where they are coming from, even if you don’t exactly agree with it. That is why empathy is so powerful.

It is pretty simple to understand why empathy is the best response, but it is not the simplest to use instead of sympathy because it takes a conscious effort. Whether you have a newborn that will not stop crying, a toddler that is crabby because they did not have a nap or a teenager who is driving you up the wall because they are self-conscious about the changes they are going through, there is always a place for empathy.

If you have not yet, try using empathy over sympathy and watch how it changes your relationships for the better. I know it did mine.

Source: “Zero to Five” by Tracy Cutchlow