Teaching Kids How to Take Another’s Perspective

Conflict on the playground. Two kids fighting over a toy shovel in the sandboxPerspective taking is very limited in young children. Like, how two-year-olds close their eyes to hide when playing hide and seek. The thought is, ‘if they can’t see themselves, you can’t see them.’ Three-year-olds stand in front of you and don’t realize you can’t see through them. Even four years olds get confused when you don’t already know things they think about or dream about.

Perspective taking and emotion understanding are foundation pieces of a developing sense of empathy. Being able to understand how another is feeling starts with understanding that the other exists separately, and then that they see and later think and feel differently.

By grade school, the hope is children have a basic understanding of others’ views, thoughts and emotions as separate from their own and important.

Ways to Teach

Other’s View – As a way to introduce differences in perspective taking, you might have each person stand on a different side of a statue or play structure and describe or draw what they see. You might also read and discuss Seven Blind Mice by Young. In this story, seven blind mice meet an elephant, and each mouse assumes it is something different based on the part of the elephant they can feel.

View of Artwork – You could visit an art museum and discuss how a painting makes each of you feel, or what a sculpture makes each of you think about. You might discuss how your perceptions might differ based on individual experiences.

Responses to Music – You could listen together and discuss the way it makes you each feel and why. You might talk about similarities and differences in what the lyrics mean to each of you.

Recognize Emotions – It can be helpful to label and discuss emotions often. This includes your’s, their’s and other’s emotions. When appropriate, you might discuss differences in emotional responses, both what the emotions are and different ways people express emotions.

Encourage Role Play – When children pretend to be a doctor, teacher, police officer, grandma or puppy they are stepping into another’s role. Encourage them to tell their story, to think about how they would feel in a situation or what they would do and why.

Ask Questions to Find Out More – This might be encouraging your child to ask a tour guide a question at a museum or to ask a friend a question about his new puppy. Let your child know that asking others questions is a good way to find out more about all kinds of things. In our social skills groups, we take turns having one child sit in a chair to answer questions about a favorite toy, activity or pet. Others sitting on the floor take turns asking questions to learn more.

Play Can You Imagine – After a birthday party you might ask, “can you imagine if you were the only girl at that party? How would it be different?” About school, “can you imagine being the youngest kid in all your classes?” or, “can you imagine being a new kid in the middle of the school year? It might be tough to make new friends when everyone else already knows each other.” or, “can you imagine how hard it might be if you still had difficulty with reading?” The point is to put your child in a place to think about the challenges others face. There are countless options here.

Story Books – There are several children’s storybooks that may be helpful in the discussions about perspective taking, other’s emotions and impact on others.

  • How Full Is Your Bucket for Kids by Rath – A nice way to introduce impact on others and how behaviors shape feelings.
  • Stand in My Shoes by Sornson – A good introduction to viewing other’s emotions.
  • What if Everybody Did That by Javernick – A light way to look at the impact of negative behaviors.
  • Everyone by Neal – How we all share similar emotions.
  • They All Saw a Cat by Wenzel – How “perspective shapes what we see.”
  • Seven Blind Mice by Young – An introduction to perspective taking.

Conflicts in Story Books – Many children’s storybooks contain some type of conflict. When characters are in conflict you might discuss how the various characters view the conflict, why they view it the way they do, and how they might be feeling about it.

Freezing, Comparing and Coaching through Conflicts – After a bit of practice in storybooks, you might freeze your children in or follow conflict moments to discuss how each viewed the conflict, why they had their view, and how each was feeling during. This works best when emotions aren’t too high or later, once everyone is calm.

Discuss Other’s Efforts, Progress and Struggles – This includes pointing out a soccer teammate’s hard work, a classmate’s study habits or a friend’s working through their own conflict. This isn’t meant as pressure on your child, just a comment that they aren’t alone in the process.

Acknowledge Their Reasons in Conflict with You – This may be the most difficult on the list; it can be helpful to occasionally acknowledge their point of view during disagreements. This reflective listening tends to validate their side, let them know you are listening. This might be, “I hear you really want that. All of your friends have one and  it seems like you feel left out.” or, “you really don’t like what I just said. I get that it is upsetting. You want it the other way.” You might use this to check in by asking, “am I understanding this correctly?” You might also ask them to identify or rephrase your point.

Talk through Your Own Conflicts and Point Out the Various Sides – When your children see you in conflict, it can be helpful to step back and explain the various sides. Model looking at the problem from various perspectives and including that information in how you solve the problem.

 

 

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Ways to Teach Apologies and Avoid Forcing Them

Girl with Sorry sign

When children are young

  • Model apologies – Young children learn best through modeling. When you are in the wrong about things, apologize to them and others easily. If they see and hear you being comfortable with apologies, they are more likely to follow suit.
  • Suggest and encourage apologies – I have read that others suggest we not encourage young children to apologize, because they don’t know what they are saying, they don’t understand the meaning of, “I’m sorry.” While I agree, young children don’t often understand the full meaning, I chalk up encouraging them to say, “I’m sorry,” to a general social grace. We do encourage young children to say, “please,” and, “thank you,” and, “excuse me,” which they also don’t understand. I think it’s fine to encourage them to build good social habits.

As children are older

  • Give choices about how to apologize – Once your child is five years old, I think it’s fine to offer choices such as writing a note or drawing a picture to apologize. You might offer choices of apologizing now or in a few minutes, saying it out loud or whispering it in someone’s ear (provided that the receiver is agreeable).
  • Give time to apologize – It can actually be helpful to the situation to give kids a few minutes to calm down and collect themselves. They might take a minute to think about what happened and decide what to say before apologizing.

Discuss the three parts of apologies

  • Say it – Saying, “I’m sorry,” is the first part of an apology. It’s great if it’s heartfelt and honest. It can be dismissive if it’s just thrown out there, or worse, yelled at another child.
  • Feel it – Feeling sorry for what you’ve done is the next step. You might ask your child to think about how they would feel in the other child’s position. You might discuss how they feel now about what happened and about having to apologize. You might touch base after and talk about how it feels after an apology.
  • Do something to make it better – Making amends is another important step. This might be helping a friend hold their ice pack on a related injury or helping rebuild the block tower that was knocked down.

Avoid forced apologies

Forced apologies happen in one of two ways. Either the child is angry and resists having to apologize, or the child is embarrassed and hesitant to apologize. In both cases, the child’s own negative emotions often get in the way of developing a sense of empathy.

If your child is angry and not feeling sorry about what happened, and you force the apology, the result is predictable. Your angry child likely will storm over to the other, bark, “SORRY!” at them and leave abruptly. Rather than teaching your child to feel empathy, this situation seems to provoke feelings in the opposite direction. Your child may actually resent the other child more for his role in this interaction. The resentment overrides any developing empathy. Your child also learns that saying sorry, even if he doesn’t mean it, is enough to fix a wrong-doing.

If your child is embarrassed by the idea of having to apologize, but is forced to do so, the result differs but is just as predictable. With a push, your child may slowly approach the other child and then quietly say, “sorry,” while fighting back tears. Empathy requires the child to focus on the thoughts and feeling of another. When a child is embarrassed, he is thinking mostly of himself which inhibits the development of empathy.

Rather than force an apology from an angry or embarrassed child, you will have more success building a sense of empathy and teaching the language of sincere apologies through modeling. In the case of anger, take your child with you and say something like, “I am so sorry he did that. I would like to make it better.” Here, the parent is speaking for himself. The parent is sorry, the child is not. In the case of embarrassment, take your child with you and say something like, “he is so sorry. He would like to make it better.” The child actually is sorry, just reluctant to address it. Your child will have the benefit of hearing a sincere apology and optimally will be better able to focus on the feelings of the other child rather than his own.

Blended Families and Re-Building Relationships

Hi Dr. Rene,
We are a blended family and have been for more than five years. One of my step children has suddenly decided they dislike me, and will avoid eye contact or any type of interaction with me if possible. I am getting sighs and dirty looks for doing something as simple as saying good morning. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no changes or incidences to cause this sudden change in behavior. Before this started we were very close, got along well and spent regular time together doing activities we both enjoyed. My husband and I have tried talking to the child about the behavior; that seems to help for a day or two. We’ve tried ignoring the behavior; which seems to make it escalate. We are at the point of wanting to enforce some sort of discipline for being disrespectful and rude. I’m not sure if this will help or hurt the situation, but things cannot continue this way, the behavior is affecting the entire family. Any advice would be welcomed.  Thank you!

Sincerely,

Michelle

Dear Michelle,

I am sure this is upsetting, but I would avoid discipline, at least at the emotion. First, I would try to look at the emotion behind the behavior and address that. While you may be unaware of any change, it doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. It may have been a piece of a passing conversation, a new understanding of an old problem as they mature or a sense of slight from his other parent. It may be impossible to find the cause, even the child may be unable to pin point it, but clearly there is upset. I would go out of my way to validate the difficult emotions when there is a behavior. When child rolls eyes, this sounds like, “I get you are frustrated with me, you don’t like what I just asked you to do.” Without lecturing, this can be followed by a simple, “and I need you to do it now.” The idea is to validate the emotion, but follow through with the behavior. It is a narrow road, but if you move forward with discipline, it is along these lines. Validate the emotions and discipline the related behaviors. In the moment this would be starting with, “I see you are grumpy this morning, I will try again later,” or, “I know you are frustratted, let’s go back and try that again.” You might also coach how the child can better display emotion. Rather than a dirty look to a “good morning,” coach that they can say, “I’m not awake yet.” This coaching is best out of the moment, when all is well.

In all this coaching, avoid putting pressure on the individual relationship. Rather than saying, “you and I are family, and you will treat me with respect,” go more global, “that is an unfriendly way to say good morning, it would be nicer to say…” Focus on coaching how to speak to people in general, how to be kind and how to carry conversation rather than pressuring the relationship.

I would also make every effort to have child spend individual time connecting with each parent. There’s no need to make an announcement, but think at least weekly each of you are spending a bit of time. This can be a trip to the grocery store if you are focused on conversation and spending the time together. You might also read about and practice Greenspan’s Talk Time as presented in Playground Politics. This is a book about social and emotional development through the grade school years, and it highlights the importance of children having open talk time as they move out of Floortime. It’s an interesting way to open up conversations and emotions.

If you decide to go more specific at the discipline, I would initially make it a whole family effort. Sit and talk with everyone about how you are going to make an effort to be kinder and gentler with each other in communicating even when people are upset. Make it an effort in your marriage and in the parent-child relationships. If there are consequences for negative tones and words, this goes for all. Likely more successful here is, it is a global effort rather than a narrow focus. I would look to discipline more specifically only if all this fails. I hope this helps!

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

>Forced Apologies

>Dear Dr. Hackney,

When my child does something that upsets or hurts another child, I want him to apologize. He may apologize but often is resistant, and it ends up in a big argument between us. How can we instill a sense of empathy for others and encourage apologies?

Sincerely,
Anna, mother of two
Ages three and four years old

Dear Anna,

What you are describing is a forced apology. If you are a parent who suggests to your child that they apologize and then they do, that is not forced. Forced apologies happen in one of two ways. Either the child is angry and resists having to apologize or the child is embarrassed and hesitant to apologize. In both cases, the child’s own negative emotions often get in the way of developing a sense of empathy.

If your child is angry and not feeling sorry about what happened and you force the apology, the result is predictable. Your angry child likely will storm over to the other, bark “SORRY!” and leave abruptly. Rather than teaching your child to feel empathy, this situation seems to provoke feelings in the opposite direction. Your child may actually resent the other child more for his role in this interaction. Your child also learns that saying sorry, even if he doesn’t mean it, is enough to fix a wrongdoing.

If your child is embarrassed by the idea of having to apologize but is forced to do so, the result differs but is just as predictable. With a push, your child may slowly approach the other child and then quietly say “sorry,” while fighting back tears. Empathy requires the child to focus on the thoughts and feeling of another. When a child is embarrassed, he is thinking mostly of himself which inhibits the development of empathy.

Rather than force an apology from an angry or embarrassed child, you will have more success building a sense of empathy and teaching the language of sincere apologies through modeling. In the case of anger, take your child with you and say something like, “I am so sorry he did that. I would like to make it better.” Here, the parent is speaking for himself. The parent is sorry, the child is not.

In the case of embarrassment, take your child with you and say something like, “He is so sorry. He would like to make it better.” The child actually is sorry, just reluctant to address it. Your child will have the benefit of hearing a sincere apology and optimally will be able to focus on the feelings of the other child rather than his own.

On the opposite end of this continuum, some children readily apologize just to be finished with the conflict. I have heard my own seven year-old saying, “Sorry, sorry, please don’t tell mom, sorry!” while reaching to take a toy out of her sister’s hand. Here, a way to shape true apologies is to teach children to feel it, say it and fix it. This requires teaching children to focus on their feelings of remorse and recognizing when they should apologize. It often requires modeling the language of sincere apologies. This idea adds the idea of then teaching children to take some action or make some amends.

Sincerely,
Rene Hackney, PhD.
Parenting Playgroups, Inc.

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