What’s the difference between Empathy and Sympathy?

April 09, 2022
Tags: Advice
Empathy and Sympathy | Blogs at Toy Universe AUS

Every parent wants their children to grow into the best person they can be. Empathy is an emotion and skill that can help with that! But kids often ask what the difference between empathy and sympathy is – there’s definitely a blurry line between the two that even us adults get confused over sometimes! Don’t worry, here’s all you need to know.

Empathy vs Sympathy

Empathy is understanding someone else’s situation and feeling what they’re feeling. It’s “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”, AKA seeing things from their point of view. It’s not about how you see the situation, but thinking about how someone else feels from their side of the story. 

Let’s say your child’s friend Jenny has a cat. Jenny’s cat ran away last night. Your child has never owned a cat so they may not know what she’s feeling, but they can try. She loved her cat so much and played with it every day, and now she doesn’t know if it’s ever coming back. How would that feel? Pretty bad. Jenny is probably feeling really sad right now. When your child understands what Jenny is feeling and feels it too, that’s empathy.

Empathy works with happy feelings too!

Have you ever seen your little one get excited just because their friend got a new toy? Your child didn’t get the toy, but they know how much it means to their friend, so they’re excited too. Yep – that’s empathy!  

So, then what’s sympathy?

Sympathy has a slight, but very important difference. It's when you feel sorry for someone else’s pain but you don’t feel it as your own. Sympathy is when you only acknowledge someone’s feelings but don’t truly understand them. You might judge them by thinking “that is bad… but, if only you did this, then that wouldn’t have happened”. 

If little Billy loses his iPad, and your child says something like “I’m sorry you lost it, but… you could have taken better care of it”. This “but…” means they are not truly feeling what their friend is feeling even though they offered comfort. This is sympathy, not empathy.

Empathy is sharing someone’s feeling while sympathy is only seeing someone’s emotion.

Why is empathy important for your child?

Nurturing your child’s empathy is important for their emotional intelligence and for just making them a better person. When they have empathy, they are seeing things from other people’s perspectives, learning how to handle situations and grow connections with others. This helps your child build social harmony

  • strong mental health
  • leadership skills
  • reduced stress levels
  • deep and healthy relationships

Teaching your child how to empathise

Children learn from seeing what the adults do. You will automatically build empathy by practising towards your child and others! This means paying attention to other people’s feelings, asking how they’re feeling, thinking before you act or talk, and helping others through kind words, hugs, or just being present.

Of course, teaching your kids empathy in more direct ways would differ depending on their age. Nevertheless, it’s important to nurture empathy in your child at every age. Here are some ideas:

  • Toddlers: Help them recognise their emotions by asking them things like “are you angry?”, “Why are you sad?”, “What made you happy?”. Teach them in the moment. If your child snatches their friends’ toy, ask them, “How do you think your friend feels?” 
  • Ages 4-7: As they get older, they will start to realise different characteristics in people. Let your child play with children of different backgrounds, genders, ages and cultures. They will realise that people may be different to them, yet still have the same emotions.
  • Older children: Challenge them to debates. Ask them what they think about certain books, situations, and events in their friends’ lives and help them express their thoughts freely. You could also take them on a visual experience to orphanages, or old-age homes where they see how different people live. 

Teaching your child the difference between empathy and sympathy can make a huge impact on the kind of person they grow to be.

"Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins…Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.” - Barack Obama

Want other tips and tricks on how to better your child’s personal development? Toy Universe has you covered! Check out all these helpful blogs.