Erin K. Leonard has been a practicing psychotherapist for 15 years. She has appeared on WGN and FOX affiliates in Dallas, Boston, Memphis, Atlanta and Phoenix. She contributed a series of articles on depression and anxiety to magazines, including most recently to Health Magazine. Dr. Erin graduated from the University... more
Every school in the United States is battling a bullying epidemic. The compilation of nationwide surveys completed since 1986, indicate an ever-growing trend of entitlement ingrained in America’s youth (Reuters 2010). Why? It is the result of parents continually and constantly confusing sympathy with empathy. When parents confuse sympathy with empathy, they tend to engage in enabling behaviors. Enabling behaviors instill a sense of entitlement in the child. The child cries victim in order to excuse themselves from accountability. They readily blame/judge others, and manipulate and bully to get what they want instead of working hard. Empathy, on the other hand, rarely requires rules be changed, expectations be lowered, or concessions be made for a child. Empathy is healing, in and of itself, and fosters children who are secure, resilient, and encoded with a solid work ethic.
The difference between sympathy and empathy may seem convoluted, but it is not and clarification is necessary if America is going to survive. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone. When a parent feels sorry for their child, they are tempted to “save and rescue,” which does nothing but strip the child of their self-efficacy. Pity automatically puts the parent in a position of power in the interaction, disrupting any chance of emotional attunement or empathy. Feeling sorry for a child immediately compels a parent to save their child from the problem.
Empathy is entirely different. Empathy is allowing yourself to feel your child's hurt, which is emotional attunement. When a parent thinks about how their child feels and allows themselves to feel it too, and then honors the feeling, the child does not feel alone in their predicament. They feel understood and connected. This is healing in and of itself, creating resiliency and security in the child, as well as, closeness in the relationship. Bending the rules or shrinking expectations is never necessary.
For example, a mom was driving her 8 year old daughter home from tennis practice, when her daughter said 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 a mom wants to hear from her child after a long day, and the mom realized she had 3 choices.
- Deny her daughter of her feelings (which is never ok) and say, “Oh no. You’re not the worst one. There are other kids worse then you.”
- Sympathize with her and say, “You poor thing. I am going to talk to your coach tomorrow about this. He needs to change things.”
- Empathize with her feelings by gently and lovingly saying, “That hurts…. It hurts to feel like the worst one. I get it, honey. I have felt like the worst one a lot in my life, and it stinks.”
Then, following it with, “Stick with it, hone. You'll get better.”
Of course, choice number 3 is the winner. The empathy prevented the child from feeling alone in her hurt. She felt understood which immediately allowed her to metabolize the hurt feelings and recover…. Stronger and more hard working then before. True story.
The last caveat to empathy is that if utilized, your child won't be anxious. Studies in neurology have shown that when a child’s brain has good Vagal tone (the Vagus nerve originates in the Medulla, which controls the nervous system) they are calmed, centered, and focused. Empathy creates good Vagal tone in a child’s brain (Sunderland 2016).
In essence, if we want to end bullying and raise children with a great work ethic and character, we must refrain from confusing sympathy and empathy. Love and love well. The results will be priceless.