In A Better You

Empathy vs Sympathy, Which is it?

Empathy vs Sympathy

What is the difference between Empathy vs Sympathy?

Empathy vs sympathy is a common debate or misconception. Many people misunderstand that these are two separate traits; not one and the same. There is a distinct difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is when a person can “feel” what someone else is going through largely based on their own personal experiences. Sympathy is when someone cares for another person despite being able to relate from their own experiences.

The traits of empathy and sympathy are valuable in all human beings. These traits allow a person to provide comfort and anticipate the actions of another. They are the basic ingredients for maintaining fulfilling relationships. When these traits are encouraged, it is unlikely that a child will become a bully due to his own level of compassion. A sympathetic child is more likely to intervene when a bully attempts to harm another person, either verbally or physically.

Born a Bully?

Children are not born bullies but their environment and upbringing may decide which side of the fence a child will reside. A lifetime of behavior may be affected by the presence, or lack, of empathy and sympathy. A person who is compassionate and kind will fare better in this world than someone who has learned to shut off their connection towards others and who remains in a self centered bubble. A bully is a person who acts out against others to accomplish their own goals. Whichever direction a person goes is largely based on their upbringing.


It is widely accepted that a family’s influence is paramount in the raising of a child. As a parent, both empathy and sympathy can be brought into everyday guidance and teaching and can mean the difference of a youngster being kind and generous or selfish and harmful to others.

Teaching Empathy

Gift giving is a wonderful way to teach a child to put themselves in another person’s shoes.  Momentarily, they step into the mindset of the person they are buying for.

As an example, when picking out a birthday gift for Jimmy, should Ben choose something that he himself would like to play with? No, because the gift is not for Ben, so he should mentally review Jimmy’s interests, his favorite color, his talents, etc. Ben must choose the best toy based on Jimmy’s likes, not his own.

Gift giving is a powerful tool in teaching empathy to children. Note:  this can become a time consuming task, especially when a child takes the gift giving job very seriously. They will need approval when choosing appropriately and the full support of the parents if this process takes more than a few minutes. There is a great reward if the child has the opportunity to see his gift appreciated and enjoyed by the recipient (like a sibling).

A byproduct of this particular teaching lesson is that it also teaches a person to notice another person’s interests and realize that everyone has their own preferences and feelings about things. This seemingly small thing can change how a person relates to people during their entire lives in addition to becoming a truly great gift giver.

Teaching Sympathy

A parent can demonstrate their caring for someone in need, in a situation that they personally cannot relate to – such as providing comfort to someone who is ill (cancer) or who is grieving. Parents who care for others provide a wonderful learning environment for their children as they emulate the behavior of their role models.

A simple teaching lesson may involve displaying concern for those in need when an ambulance goes by, or a fire truck. A parent can express caring for the person(s) who are awaiting help. This is also a good opportunity to promote the “good guys” and show that the police force and firemen and women are helpers in our society.

It is not a matter of empathy versus sympathy, but a combination of two compassionate traits that yield a fully engaged human being. Society has influences that may assist in teaching children.


Outside of family, school and church play a big role in social influences. A caring teacher or Sunday school teacher may play a pivotal role in a child’s world in addition to the love and compassion they experience at home. However, in today’s society more children seem to lack a sense of caring for others as much as for themselves. Without being guided to feel for another, children may seem to be less sensitive and less affected when others are hurt or suffering.

Sometimes kids that learn to survive without compassion see others who are caring as weak. This is an untrue notion. Bullies often prey upon the more sensitive children because they appear to be easy targets when, in truth, the empathic person is probably much stronger emotionally than his aggressor though may suffer deeply when victimized.


As a whole it seems that society is becoming desensitized to the suffering of others but this fact is especially alarming when it happens to children.  From emotionally vulnerable children, adult human beings are formed. Whether they continue to feel or shut off this natural behavior is determined largely by their childhood experiences and influences.

From raw media coverage to violent video games, it is easy to see why children are not as affected by violence and shocking images as in past generations. When the horrors of the world become commonplace and far from personal,


Exposure to media coverage may be harmful to children when there is explicit talk about death and suffering or graphic images of horrors such as war. When children absorb this type of information they may learn to disassociate to protect themselves from caring. Also, when this type of information bombards young people, they quickly are not affected by gruesome scenes; it becomes acceptable. It is imperative as a society that we protect our children and allow innocence to leave a young human in gradual stages.

Harmful Behavior

Potential danger arises when a person has lost the capacity to see others as flesh and blood; as another human being such as them. The potential to harm becomes real when someone does not understand that they have power to cause harm to others, or they do not care.

Ultimately, when a person does not have the ability to sympathize or empathize they may exhibit traits of a sociopath or even a psychopath. They become self-serving and may learn how to get what they want at another’s expense, and with no remorse. This is the danger of allowing children to become desensitized to feeling what others experience; to having compassion.

Video Games

There is much controversy about the negative influence that video games may or may not have on children.  Do graphic violence and themes desensitize our youth? Does the act of shooting someone on screen cause the player to disconnect from the victim and does it “teach” the brain to not care about real people? This subject is under scrutiny and is the cause of much debate.


When a person is self-focused and lacks the ability or predisposition to have compassion towards others, they may become a bully. A neglected child may look for personal validation by taking action that affects another person. Behavior might include hitting or insulting a person simply for the reaction that shows them they have power and can affect their environment.

Sympathy versus empathy:

What exactly is sympathy? Sympathy can be defined as feeling concern for another’s plight while not necessarily being able to personally relate to their particular situation.

What about empathy? Empathy is when someone goes beyond mere concern for someone else and realizes what the person is actually experiencing. It is the ability to put one’s self in another’s shoes and internally emulate their pain or plight.

Developing Compassion

Learning the difference between sympathy and empathy may help parents deliberately guide their youngsters in a kind direction, and siblings are often key players in this teaching world.

When considering another person’s feelings in a situation, it may come from a deep sense of intuition and/or it can be developed within a child’s rearing. When siblings share emotional experiences children are more apt to understand what each other are going through.

Influence of Siblings

What impact do siblings have on developing sympathy and empathy?

With siblings children may observe their peers as they feel happy, sad, angry and will learn to put themselves in someone else’s shoes by sharing experiences and rules; sharing the same upbringing.

To build compassion it is not a matter of sympathy vs empathy but a combination of these two abilities. When possessing both of these levels of concern for another person, it is impossible for a child to become a bully. At most, a child might “boss around” another child to see what happens, but to become a true bully is unlikely because if they brought harm to another in any way they would feel remorse for their actions and discontinue this behavior.

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