Empathy vs Sympathy

Empathy vs. SympathyThere is a fine line between sympathy and empathy. Learning the difference can make huge changes in your relationship with your child.


  • Sympathy directs attention to how you feel.
  • Empathy is about listening. It tells your child you are paying attention to how she feels.
  • Sympathy is about me. Empathy is about you.
  • Empathy has nothing to do with how you feel; it’s about understanding how the other feels given their circumstance.

Empathy and sympathy as metaphor:

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 and jumps in to help. Now both are stuck at the bottom of the hole. Man C walks by and hears both A and C calling for help. Man C tells them he will be back soon. Later, Man C arrives with a ladder.

Man B acted out of sympathy for Man A and jumped in thinking he was helping Man A. Now both were in the problem. Man A now had Man B to deal with as well as his original problem. Sympathy often becomes more about the sympathizer. Man C empathized understanding the predicament they were in and what was needed. His compassion was helpful. Empathy is more about the person being empathized with.

My mother was a professional worrier. Whenever I expressed having a problem with anything, she sympathized, “Oh my poor dear. That’s so awful. Do you really have to do that?” Her sympathy was not helpful. As a matter of fact, I stopped sharing my problems with her because then I had her feelings and worry to deal with as well as my own problem.

When we sympathize with our children, we can cross a boundary and become enmeshed with our child in their problem. We then become overly protective or involved (the helicopter parent) and try hard to fix or take away our child’s problem. For example, my child is having a problem with a classmate calling my child names. When I sympathize, it becomes more about my upset, resentment, or anger than my child’s difficulty with the name-calling. I then feel justified in calling the teacher or offending child’s parent, getting angry and demanding restitution.

If I have empathy for my child’s problem, I stay detached to a certain extent. But I am detached from making it my problem, not from my child. I may be upset about the situation but more important is connecting with my child and expressing my understanding of and compassion for his emotions. Empathy lets the child know that this important adult understands him and can name his feelings, so he feels normal and accepted. “It’s got to be so hard when you hear that name. I can imagine that you feel pretty demoralized.” It’s about my child, not me. He can agree with my assumption or correct it. Conversation typically follows empathy.

When I empathize, I know it is my child’s problem, and when I don’t take the responsibility to fix it, I am much better able to help my child with his problem. Once we connect on the emotional level and he trusts that I know how he feels, I can then ask questions and offer suggestions that help him figure out what he would like to do about it. But the focus is on helping him handle it the way he thinks is best, the way he can.

When I take responsibility for the problem, I am likely to tell him what to do about it—again, it’s about me and my “rightness”. “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 about me projecting myself into the situation and telling my child to fix it like I would.

Empathy does not mean you agree with your child. She might have an issue with her sibling and scream at you, “You always let him have his way. You always get mad at me. It’s not fair!” A typical response might be, “That is not true. Just yesterday I took you for new shoes.” That is a reasoning response which denies your child’s feelings. A better one is, “That’s got to be be so hard to think that I give him his way. Of course you think that’s unfair.” You have now made emotional connection. Then, “I’m going to pay better attention to that and I’d like you to tell me whenever you feel that way.” This is true empathy. It says given your circumstance and who you are, I can completely understand why you feel that way you do. It is not saying I agree with you.

Having good boundaries with your children means allowing them to take responsibility for their problems and working toward finding good solutions that work for both of you.

When I jump in the hole with my child in order to experience his pain, I am in my own pain and 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 and go off to get the ladder, I give him a tool to help him solve his own problem.



10 thoughts on “Empathy vs Sympathy

  1. Martha Beck says — quoting I know not whom — “Troubled? Then stay with me for I am not.” Not feeling someone else’s pain, staying outside of it, means you can be with them and still help them see a way out. It’s the essence of coaching, isn’t it?

  2. This is so hard for me. My mom is the ultimate worrier, so much so that she now struggles psychologically. I have also stopped telling her things a long time ago… Now I want to learn to emphatiE with my baby. He is still so young and I havent run into many opportunities to work with this. though there are certainly moments i need to empathize with him already, I’ve got some time to learn. But I struggle so much with that in my relationship with others. I am trying hard not to fix people, just listen… Please share ways/exercises/examples/anything to learn empathy.

  3. I’m not sure the example works for me. Isn’t Man C just solving the problem for the two stuck men?
    I’m feeling like you’re trying to say that we, as parents, aren’t supposed to just fix it (and I agree).

    1. Interesting point Jeremiah. I am pointing out the difference between empathy and sympathy to see that being able to stay slightly disengaged is more helpful to the problem. You are right that I advocate parents guiding and facilitating their children to solve their problems. There are many times when we need to be more active (in this case, not fixing the problem would mean leaving the men in the hole) to help our children when they can’t help themselves but the ladder would represent a tool by which they can then help themselves (the men can then use it to climb out). If a child is being bullied at school, for instance, the parent can work with the child to provide tools to help the child deal with the bullying. Sometimes talking to a teacher or principal is necessary. But the actual dealing with the bully needs to be the child’s. I hope that clarifies it for you.

  4. Bonnie,

    This is sich an important distinction that you describe with eloquence and clarity. Thank you. I have reposted it to my community over her on the left side 😉

    Keep sharing your amazing perspective. It is helping everyone grow toward something more connective overall.

    Lots of Love,

    Riviera PlaySchool
    Redondo Beach, CA

  5. I was looking up “empathy vs sympathy” for other reasons and found this web page and i can say with certainty that i have learned a great deal not only in the explination but of myself thank you for that now i can become a greater person both in general and as a loving father THANK YOU

  6. Both of them have equal importance depending upon situation.We need to learn how to express the feeling of sympathy and empathy timely.Hard part is we sometimes fails to understand the situation.That is some kind of challenge for me.

Comments are closed.