Every school in the United States is battling a bullying epidemic. The compilation of nation wide 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 confuse sympathy with empathy. When a parent incorporates sympathy instead of empathy, they tend to engage in enabling behaviors. Enabling behaviors instill a sense of entitlement in the child, causing the child to cry victim in order to excuse themselves from accountability. They readily blame/judge others, manipulating and bullying to get ahead, rather then 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 absolutely necessary if America is going to survive. Sympathy is equivalent to 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( 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 is driving her 8 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, and she realizes she had 3 choices.
1) 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.”
2) 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.”
3) Empathize with her feelings and gently 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 3 is the winner. 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 recover… Stronger and more determined then before. --True story.
The last caveat regarding 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 calm, centered, and focused. Empathy creates good Vagal tone in a child’s brain(Sunderland 2016), 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, parents must refrain from confusing sympathy and empathy. Love and love well. The results will be priceless.
Dr Erin Leonard