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 who continually confuse sympathy with empathy. When parents do this, they tend to engage in enabling behaviors. Such behaviors instill a sense of entitlement in children, causing them to cry victim in order to excuse themselves from accountability. They readily blame or judge others, manipulating and bullying to get ahead, 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. It fosters children who are secure, resilient, and encoded with a solid work ethic.
The difference between sympathy and empathy seems convoluted, but it isn’t. Regardless, clarification is absolutely necessary if America is going to survive. Sympathy is equivalent to feeling sorry for someone. When parents feel sorry for their child, they’re 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.
Empathy is entirely different. Empathy occurs when a parent allows themselves to feel their child’s hurt for a moment (emotional attunement). When a parent thinks about how their child feels, 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 the healing component of empathy, which creates resiliency and security in the child as well as closeness in the relationship. Bending the rules or shrinking expectations becomes unnecessary.
For example, a mom is driving her eight-year-old daughter home from tennis practice when her daughter says 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 the mom wants to hear from her child after a long day. She realizes she has three choices:
- Deny her daughter of her feelings (which is never okay) and say, “Oh no. You’re not the worst one. There are other kids worse than 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. It doesn’t seem fair.”
- Empathize with her feelings and lovingly say, “That hurts…. It hurts to feel like the worst one. I get it. I have felt like the worst one a lot in my life, and it stinks.” Then follow it with, “Stick with it, kiddo. It will get better. You’ll get better.”
Of course, choice number three wins. The empathy prevented the little girl from feeling alone in her hurt. She felt understood and connected to her mom, which immediately allowed her to metabolize the hurt feelings and begin to recover, stronger and more determined than before.
One more caveat regarding empathy: 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) she is calm, centered, and focused. Empathy creates good Vagal tone in a child’s brain, allowing them to settle down and learn.
In essence, if parents want to end bullying and raise children with a rugged work ethic and strong character, they must refrain from confusing sympathy and empathy.
Love and love well. The results will be priceless.