In the short time, I have been a parent, I have had to learn and unlearn many things. Today I would like to discuss the importance of knowing and role-modeling the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy allows us to react from a place of rescuing instead of being present and attentively listening. In life, we all know that there will be situations and outcomes that we cannot change. There will be heartache and heartbreak that we cannot prevent. With all of this in mind, I challenge (I still practice this daily) myself to not rescue and not fall into a knee-jerk response of sympathy. What is empathy? According to MeriamWebster.com, the difference is "sympathy is when you share the feelings of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them". Below I will list five tips concerning empathy:
1)Accept and admit that you may not understand how your child or another person feels. (This helps to free you from the guilt and shame of not understanding).
2) Acknowledge and process your own feelings about the situation and keep them separate from the child's or person's feelings. For example, if my child is tantrumming during the morning routine before leaving for work, I acknowledge that I feel frustrated. I also recognize that this frustration is separate from the emotion that my child is experiencing. Perhaps I am afraid of being late for work or being judged by my employer. My feelings are telling me something about myself.
3) Accept that my child or someone else's experience of the same situation often will and do differ from my own. We all have different perspectives and different responses to the situations that we experience.
4) Be present. At times, hearing someone tell a story may trigger strong emotions from a similar situation we have experienced or it may trigger judgment. We must be intentional about remaining present and attentively listening. We must also address our emotional responses with an inquisitive nature about the "why". Why am I experiencing these emotions? How can I re-engage as a listener?
5) Create a safe space where your children can witness you being empathetic. For example, the next time they are experiencing a challenging situation, try being emotionally present, validating their emotions, and listening to them. Do not listen to the urge to "fix it". For example, the next time your children are fighting over a toy, avoid jumping in to referee by taking the toy away. Instead, ask them how they can solve the problem. Model taking turns. Validate the sad feelings of the child that will have to share when they don't want to. Validate the feelings of the child that will have to wait for a turn. Our goal should be to role model and guide them to being empathetic while also guiding them to solve their problem or identifying tools that can help them solve the problem.
I am listing two great articles below that provide more information on this topic:
5 Steps of Developing Real Empathy
5 Tips for Cultivating Empathy
Author: Alita-Geri Carter, MSN, RN, CPNP-PC
Disclaimer: The information in my blog posts does not act as medical or legal advice. I am not in representation of any federal, state, or local government entities.