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Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion: Do We Need All Three?

By Susan Kurlander, M.Ed.

I was at my grandson’s tenth birthday party recently where all the children were engaged in multiple activities including a kick ball game, a zip line, and a “bounce” trampoline when I noticed him off to the side talking to a friend who was standing by himself. I was close enough to hear the interaction where my grandson, Sam, asked his friend if he was upset about something. Sam then proceeded to acknowledge his friend’s feelings, shared how he understood and sometimes felt the same way and then asked his friend to join him in one of the activities. 

Sympathy? Yes. Sam recognized and acknowledged his friend’s feelings. 

Empathy? Yes. Sam put himself in his friend’s place to validate his friend’s feelings. 

Compassion? Yes. Sam carried the situation a step further by asking his friend to join him in an activity. 

As parents and grandparents, do we want to encourage the development of all three to help our children grow into caring adults? Do we want them to become adults who won’t look the other way when someone is being bullied, unfairly treated, ridiculed, or simply experiencing emotional pain resulting from a circumstance or relationship? I would hope the answer would always be “yes.” 

What exactly is the difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion?  

Sympathy is: “a reaction to the plight of others”—It is an acknowledgment of someone’s feelings. 

Empathy is: “an understanding of someone’s feelings where you can imagine how they might feel based on what you know about the person – being able to put oneself in another’s shoes.” You may not share their feelings, but you can relate to what they are experiencing. 

Compassion is: “an active desire to relieve another person’s suffering—choosing to do something to help someone in need, being driven to action.”   

Here are some suggestions as to how to help our children develop all three responses. Each suggestion encourages a) sympathy, b) empathy and c) compassion. Some of these suggestions are drawn from “Empathy vs Sympathy: How to Raise an Empathetic Child” on splashlearn.com. With all these suggestions, emphasize that there is no right or wrong answer. 

  1. After reading a story:
    1. Identify the feelings of the characters 
    2. Talk about the reasons the characters may have those feelings 
    3. Describe things someone could do to make those feelings more manageable 
  2. Role play an open-ended situation:
    1. Acknowledge the different feelings one might have in this situation 
    2. Identify possible reasons for those feelings 
    3. Act out the ending with an action that could help to change the feelings
  3. Create a care box with tissues, band aids, small stuffed animals, etc. After hearing about a situation that may have happened in a play group, in school, etc.: (ex. someone snatching a toy without asking permission) 
    1. Ask your child to identify feelings someone may have had in that situation 
    2. Describe why that situation may have made someone have those feelings
    3. What could one of the characters do to help the person feel “better?”  (You could also use a situation involving animals especially for very young children))
  4. Play Pictionary where you cut out pictures from magazines and have your child:
    1. Identify the feelings that the picture brings to mind 
    2. Discuss what may have happened that would make someone have those feelings 
    3. Create another picture that would show an action resulting in a different feeling
  5. Engage your child in debates where different responses are discussed. 
  6. Age appropriately, take your child to different places such as a nursing home (make sure that your child is not too fearful or upset to benefit from the experience). 
  7. Encourage, age appropriately, volunteer activities. 
  8. Because sympathy, empathy and compassion build on one another, create empathy blocks. Pick an emotion and have your child respond as to how they would FEEL, what they would THINK, what they would SAY and what they would DO.

What a challenge as well as a gift it can be to raise children who become increasingly aware of their own feelings, the feelings of others, and the ways we can help to create a more caring world. It’s a win-win endeavor.

Susan Kurlander

Susan Kurlander, M.Ed. is a Health Educator at Jewish Community Services.

Jewish Community Services (JCS) provides programs and services for people of all ages and backgrounds, helping them achieve their goals, enhance their wellbeing, and maximize their independence.

To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.

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