Empathy is a concept easily talked about but much less easily understood.  Furthermore, the application of true empathy can be immensely challenging. The basic definition of empathy is the attempt of imagining or trying to share the feelings of another.  Empathy is also often confused with sympathy. Sympathy incorporates feelings of sadness or sorrow for another, but doesn’t reflect all feelings. It is important to know the difference when practicing empathy with others.

What do all these definitions and clarifications have to do with school violence?  Why is it important to focus on showing empathy more effectively?

Let’s do an activity:

Imagine you are a middle school student.  Your parents have recently gone through a tumultuous divorce and you were left to deal with the emotional baggage that ensued.  You are also struggling to keep up with the increased school work that middle school brings. You had good friendships in elementary school but you have withdrawn from others because you didn’t want anyone to know how awful your home situation was and you didn’t feel like pretending to anyone that you were okay.  You spend most of your time playing violent video games.

You have many of the risk factors for someone who may become violent, at school or otherwise.  Some of those factors include: lack of social and familial support, high exposure to visual images of violence, exposure to violence in the home, and poor self-esteem.

Empathy Is A Healing Choice

You finally reach a breaking point and decide you want to talk to a friend about how you feel. You choose talk to one of your friends from elementary school.  There are a variety of outcomes possible from this conversation but let’s look closely at two:

  1. The friend you talk to listens for a few minutes but says it’s no big deal.  He then gives you the cold shoulder at school. The next day, you see him laughing with a group of friends and looking in your direction.
  2. The friend you talk to listens.  He asks questions to better understand your feelings.  He tells you he misses hanging out together. He says he wishes he could have known to help you through the rough divorce.  He sits with you at lunch the next day. He texts you to see how you’re doing over the weekend. He invites you to play video games at his house.

The second scenario shows how an empathetic response is much more likely to make a positive impact on a struggling individual.  Try to brainstorm someone if your life you could impact positively by showing empathy today. A great start is with your own family!

Be The Change

This article is a continuation of my previous blog, School Violence-Bringing Light to a Dark Issue, and part two of a five part series on impacting school violence. I also run a group to teach teens these skills. We can be the change we want to see.

My practice began as a reunification therapist, helping parents renew relationships with their children. I then became a school counselor, and now love being in private practice.  Adolescents are one of my favorite age groups to counsel. Call or email with any questions or comments! Our first time consultations are on the phone, 15 minutes and can help you determine your next step. You don’t have to do this alone.

Ashley Barkley, LPC

(940) 222-8703 ext.701


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