Empathy vs Sympathy: Do you care more about your child’s feelings or your own?
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.
Questions and Answers – and a Story
Q. My 3 yo acts out dramatically when I come back from putting his baby sister down or if I’ve run errands. He throws toys at me and just anywhere in general. Today at church he really acted out banging on and breaking a tambourine. When started banging 2 maracas together, I asked him to stop and put my hand over one of them. He pulled it away and kept banging them together so I told him I needed to take them away. I got one of them and handed it to the lady next to me. He threw the other one at her and hit her in the face. I was of course horrified and turned to look at my son saying “no we don’t throw things”. He immediately started crying hysterically to go home and see daddy. He climbed onto my lap, took him to the other room and rocked him. I asked if he could say sorry to the lady. He looked at me angrily and said “no I’m not apologize!” Should I make him apologize? Could I have done anything different to avoid the throwing?
A. You have a very angry little boy. It may have all to do with a new sister. I don’t think you could have prevented the maraca throw altho you can expect throwing or hitting if you take something away from him. Do not make him apologize. Kids so easily get into fake apologies “Saaawwrry” and think that gives them a clean slate. Your connection with him as you rocked was great. His defenses are so strong that you rarely get that opportunity to have him cry it out on your lap. Say nothing until his crying subsides or weakens – just comfort and rock – and then tell him what happened, “You wanted to bang the maracas together, and I took one from you, and you got so mad that you threw one.” No blame, just stating facts. Wait until he is calm and try, “I know you didn’t mean to hit that woman but you were so mad at me that you couldn’t control yourself. Now that you are back in control, is there anything you’d like to say to her?” If he says no, don’t force it. You can tell the woman how sorry you are and model for him. At home when he throws, hand him something that he can throw—“It’s not ok to throw that but you can throw this. Show me how far you can throw it.” Give him what he can do until he is able to gain more self-control and accept small corrections.
Is it really lying?
Q. What are your thoughts on 7 yo lies such as…yes, I did my homework to find out later he only did part of it. Or yes I showered (when it’s obvious he didn’t). How about sneaking to eat snacks or candy and then hiding the trash? Or hiding to play with the iPad, when he knows the rules about no screens on weekdays and 30 minutes on weekends? I once found the iPad between a stack of magazines in the bathroom. Should I be concerned? My son is a sweet, very smart, social, outgoing and loving kid, I can’t help but wonder what I am doing wrong?
A. The question to ask when lies and sneaky behavior emerge is, Why does my son feel he can’t tell me the truth?/Why does he think he has to hide things from me? Get in his shoes and answer from his perspective. Your answer may be …because he’s afraid of getting in trouble. So then what does getting in trouble mean to him? Will he be punished? Have iPad time taken away? Does he fear disappointing you? Does he know he’s not supposed to but is willing to risk it because it’s that important to him? If it’s the latter, then perhaps some negotiating is in order to make sure the screentime rules work for both of you. If he knows you won’t budge on a rule, then he will break it and of course hide the evidence. You want to ask yourself what your son’s behavior is telling you. Do I need to reevaluate my expectations and rules? Am I perceived as too hard-nosed or inflexible? Am I growing along with my child or do I expect the same as I have expected for years? Be sure you are not telling him he is lying to you. Then he learns he is a liar and will lie again. I suggest that parents leave the word “lie” out of their vocabulary. It is an assumption that will lead you to break connection with your son. Reframe your with, He’s not telling me the whole truth because he knows I will be unhappy. He wants more time on his iPad so of course he’s going to hide it when he knows I will be angry. I would suggest that you leave his homework between him and his teacher. If he hasn’t finished it, his teacher will address it. It’s not your problem. Don’t keep snacks in the house that he can’t have. If you’re going to keep it away from him, he will keep the evidence away from you. Engage him in making rules rather than establishing a rule and enforcing it. You will get far more cooperation.
Q. I am struggling with my 12 year old daughter and how much to push her. She is part of the popular crowd but says they are not nice, especially the ring leader, but she is still choosing them and distancing herself from the true friends of past years. She seems unhappy and angry a lot of the time. One of my big faults is getting involved when she and her younger brother disagree. This morning I put in my 2 cents (again – ugh) and while I think I am impartial, my daughter said, “I wish Dad were here. He takes my side and you always take his.” A light bulb went off. I think that could be the root of her angry behavior, at least toward me. I corrected myself and said that I see her perspective, but she didn’t take it and slammed the door. My question is, when she has no faith in my feelings for her and no faith that I am fair, how can I connect with her? I need to stop saying sorry and DO BETTER and maybe that is the only solution. Talking to her directly about it only seems to make it worse…
A. The tough part is implementing in the moment what you know to be right, because that’s when our old habits and learned behavior kick in even when we consciously don’t want them to. Stay on track with what you understand – that it is all about her perception of what is going on rather than your intention – and work hard to acknowledge her side of it in the moment. Repairs are always good, but the more you can pull back from your temptation to get involved or fix it, the sooner she will learn she can trust you. Stay out of their arguments and use conflict resolution if the fights seem resentful. Find things where you can connect with her. Ask her if you can watch a show with her, talk about her friends with no judgments or advice but ask her what she would like to do about it, take her somewhere she will enjoy for 1 on 1 time. Before you can have any influence over her choice of friends, she has to first trust that you are her ally and understand her point of view. Be willing to be her sounding board for now. It may take awhile before she trusts, so be patient and keep focused on how she must see things. And remember teens are very moody and hormonal and want time in their rooms, their territory.
I emailed you a while ago regarding my daughter’s inability to go to sleep in her crib, needing me to wait till she fell asleep in my arms, then waiting 20 min. after she was asleep to put her down. This routine continued, but then I would put her down when she was not 100% asleep after 20 min. Then she just looked up at me, turned over and fell asleep. Fast forward to her at 2 3/4 and she has started asking to go into her bed after a few minutes on her chair. She will say, “I’m ready now” or I will ask if she’s ready. Most of the time she says I’m ready and some of the time she says not yet but lets us know when she is. She still plays happily when she wakes without calling to us. I assume she trusts we are coming. Thank you for the wonderful advice! Even though it took almost 3 years and those years felt as an eternity, it has paid off in a huge way! I’m so glad I didn’t listen to all the advice of letting her cry it out.