Building guidelines for young children’s actions is second nature to most parents: no hitting. Please don’t interrupt. We don’t take toys from other children’s paws.
However, as they grow older and social interaction becomes more complicated, simply learning the rules will not suffice. They must learn to set personal limits and respect those of others. And that necessitates the ability to understand what others want and need, as well as the ability to communicate those desires.
“Boundaries are simply about recognizing and respecting our own needs while still being respectful and understanding of the needs of others,” says Stephanie Dowd, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, “and in order for that to work, we need to be placing a huge focus on helping kids cultivate greater empathy and self-awareness.”
Why is empathy important?
The idea of training children who haven’t yet mastered the art of tying their shoes to be more empathetic can seem ludicrous to some parents. You should, however, gradually assist them in developing an understanding of others. Kids do not understand the nuances of what it means to be compassionate, but they don’t have to.
At the same time, we want to help kids become more comfortable expressing their own feelings and establishing boundaries, while still respecting the boundaries of others. That takes a lot of practice.
How to help kids develop empathy
Mandi Silverman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, says, “Empathy is something we think of as being very adult.” “However, by the age of three, most children can instinctively display empathy for a crying friend or recognize whether someone has a “booboo” and want to bandage it.”
She explains that since younger children learn better from experience, parents should begin by resolving problem behaviors as soon as they arise. “When you can do social skills coaching in real time, they’re more likely to know what to do in the situation and be able to repeat the action the next time it comes up,” she says.
Fortunately (or unfortunately), most children have plenty of chances to practice interfering in the moment. “How do you think Mark felt when you took his toy away?” for example.
If your child grabs a reluctant friend, you should encourage him to consider how his friend is feeling and why it’s necessary to ask before touching. “It’s important to ask permission before touching someone else because they may be sick or in a bad mood and not want to play right now.”
According to Dr. Busman, a child’s egotism can be a useful tool at times. “Ask your child to consider how he feels when his sister refuses to let him play with her friends or share her dessert with him. Then inquire as to how he believes she will respond if he did the same.”
Using your child’s feelings as a mirror for others will help him gain empathy and learn to connect behaviors to the emotions they cause.
Rules work both ways
Seeing rules as mutual is one way to help kids understand why it’s necessary to obey them.
- It’s not okay to touch someone’s body if they don’t want you to, just like it’s not okay for someone to touch you in a way you don’t want.
- Listening when others speak to us, particularly when they give us directions or ask us to do or not do anything, is how we stay safe and ensure the safety of others. People won’t know what you need or want if they aren’t paying attention to you.
Practice setting boundaries
When it comes to social interactions, learning to be more empathetic can be a huge help for kids, but it’s also vital to help your child learn to stand for himself and his limits when other kids are being pushy, offensive, or just plain thoughtless.
Giving your child the opportunity to practice standing up for himself by helping him make a plan for what to do if someone doesn’t respect his feelings or boundaries is a good idea.
“What are some ways you might let Jeremy know you don’t like it when he hugs you without asking?” you could ask. Discuss some basic phrases that your child should use to speak for himself: “Please come to an end.” “That bothers me.” “Now it’s my turn.”
Make a list of Get-A-Grown-Up situations. Here are some examples:
- Hitting, pushing, or even a child who is simply playing too rough are all examples of inappropriate behavior.
- A child who refuses to accept no as a response
- A circumstance in which he feels threatened or uneasy. For example, if his friends want to climb over a fence into someone else’s yard or play too close to the pool, he will be punished.
Helping children become comfortable with asserting their limits at a young age may prepare them to do so in the future, when the stakes are likely to be even higher.
Kids look to their parents for guidance on how to act while learning something, and empathy and self-awareness are no exception. It’s important to practice what you preach if you want your orders to stick.
When kids see their parents checking in with each other to see if they’re on the same page before making a decision, or asking a peer how they’re feeling — and actually listening to the answer — they’re more likely to do the same.
Find, and discuss, examples
Another way to provide empathy in the dialogue is to use examples of positive and bad behavior from children’s favorite media. If a TV character is being humiliated, for example, you might ask, “How do you think he felt when the other kids called him stupid?” Is it ever appropriate to refer to anyone in that manner?”
Making sure kids engage with people who are different from themselves on a daily basis is another important aspect of instilling empathy. “It can be difficult for children to make the connection between how they feel when something happens and how another person would feel about the same thing,” Dr. Busman says. “And it can be particularly difficult when the other person appears or acts differently than they do.”
One factor that promotes acceptance of differences is activities that offer your child the opportunity to play with kids from different cultures, races and physical abilities that have similar interests.
It also aids in the early de-mystification of children of other genders. “We don’t want kids to reach puberty and then see the opposite sex as a foreign species,” Dr. Dowd says. Parents can help by ensuring that events offer enough opportunities for boys and girls to interact and work on an equal footing.
Respect limits on offering affection
Children should have the freedom to choose whether and when they want to express affection. “Grandma may expect a big hug when she comes over, but we want kids to realize that hugs and kisses, whether they are receiving or offering them, should be a choice,” Dr. Busman says.
When children are uncomfortable, parents should stop pressuring them to be affectionate. However, foregoing grandparental kisses does not have to imply impoliteness. Dr. Busman advises, “Come up with something else your child should do instead.” Instead of a kiss on the lips, she might choose something more familiar to her, such as waving or shaking hands.
Take your kids’ limits seriously
Listen carefully when your child tells you what is and isn’t acceptable to them, and honor their wishes whenever possible. It may seem obvious, but Dr. Busman explains that adults often disregard children’s limits without even understanding it.
“Don’t say, ‘Oh come on, you don’t really hate it.’ If a kid says she doesn’t like being tickled or picked up, don’t say, ‘Oh come on, you don’t really hate it.’ Instead, say something like, “I hear you, and I won’t do it again.”