mother and daughter hugging

What You Need to Know About Sympathy and Empathy

Are sympathy and empathy the same thing? Which one is more helpful to those struggling with problems? When supporting another person during our relationships, we will most likely need to provide emotional support for them at some point. This is especially characteristic in a parent-child relationship, as our kids often look to us for the support they need to get through the challenges they face. What kind of support do they need? How can we best help them?

What Is Sympathy?

Sympathy and empathy might appear to be the same thing on the surface. However, sympathy is often less helpful to others. Sympathy most often refers to feeling sorry for another person’s problems. While this might be a nice gesture, sympathy often makes the person feel like they have an issue that cannot be solved. Feeling sorry for someone can also imply that we are looking down on them or devaluing their emotions. 

Sympathy can also be the act of assuming a mutual experience of another’s emotional pain. While we can share similar experiences, we cannot always assume that our kids feel the same emotions that we had. We might “push” our feelings onto our children rather than understand what they think about the situation. When our child is having issues in their life, we should seek to understand the problem and emotions, rather than assume what they feel.

Empathy and Understanding

Empathy differs from sympathy by allowing our children to experience what they are going through. According to Dr. Charles Fay during a conversation on “Beyond Risk and Back,” empathy is “caring about somebody and allowing them to experience what they are [going to] experience.” We can listen to our children’s thoughts and perspectives to understand their emotions. Unlike sympathy, where we assume another’s feelings are the same as ours, we do not assume with empathy. We listen and hear someone out. We seek to understand their point-of-view.

Empathetic support requires us to really “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.” We have to investigate and dig deeper to gain understanding. We might not know precisely how to respond or what to say. However, when our kids struggle with issues, they do not need us to have all the answers. Most importantly, they need our support. They need to know that we care and are here to help them find solutions. 

Can I Share My Experiences to Express Empathy?

Yes! Expressing empathetic support does not mean that we do not share our experiences. When we share similar experiences that we had growing up, we can show our kids that we are also human. Kids might see us as infallible, perfect beings. They might not realize the mistakes that taught us valuable life lessons. They might feel like if they make a mistake, they will disappoint us or that we are inaccessible to help them. 

Sharing our experiences can help our children feel hopeful about their futures. If they feel like their issues are unique to them, they might feel alienated or “different from other people.” When we can open up to our kids about our experiences growing up, we can foster a greater bond with our kids.

Be Careful About Oversharing

We need to, however, be mindful of oversharing when talking with our kids. The key is to keep the focus on what will be helpful to them in the moment. Sometimes, when sharing experiences, we might begin venting or shift the focus to ourselves. For example, if a child struggles with a coach being hard on them, we should not go on a tirade about our boss! We can discuss how we deal with pressure from other people. Always keep the focus on what is helpful to them.

Support Is About Balance

Supporting our kids with their struggles requires balance. We can share our own experiences without assuming that our kids have the same perspective. Balanced empathetic support requires being careful not to overshare or cross a boundary by venting to our child about our own issues. Instead, keep the conversation focused on helping the child, sharing what will be useful to them, and keep solutions in focus.

We might not understand all of our child’s problems and challenges. However, our kids can teach us about them. When offering empathetic support, seek to learn about these challenges rather than presume to know how our kids feel. Our kids are facing obstacles that we may never have encountered in our lives. Do not worry if you do not have a similar experience! Just show an interest in understanding their experiences.

Knowing the difference between sympathy and empathy can help you support your child through the challenges they may face. When we sympathize, we take pity on others’ pain, or we assume that they should feel a certain way based upon our own experiences. However, empathy requires us to understand their perspective. We can ask questions to understand their pain and struggles rather than try to have all the answers. We can share our experiences without oversharing or venting about our own issues. By finding a balance and always seeking to understand first before interjecting, we can provide the unconditional support that our kids need during troubling times. If your child is struggling with mental health disorders, addiction, or other serious behavioral problems, you might want to reach out for additional support. Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center is here for you. Call us today at (303) 443-3343. We’re here to make your family’s fire burn brightest!

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