Developing empathy or the ability to relate to the feelings of others by, in essence "putting yourself in someone else's shoes" is the first step in the ability to relate and connect to others.
Parents can foster the development of empathy by helping the child focus on others in everyday social situations.
When her daughter was acting out a movie, one mother took the child into the lobby and asked her to look around at the other movie goers and think about how her behavior was affecting them. The daughter was able to state something to the effect of: "maybe it's someone's birthday and they are excited to come to the movie but I'm kicking their seat and ruining it for them." When the child calmed down, she was given another chance. She watched the remainder of the movie with more awareness of the others around her as people with needs and feelings just like her.
Imagining what others may be feeling and experiencing is to also get in touch with your own feelings. When children learn and practice "the golden rule": "treat others as you would like to be treated" - it produces a feeling of connection to society and on a larger scale, all of humanity. This in turn produces confidence as well as a sense of worth and belonging.
Parents can role model empathy at home by not criticizing or putting down others in front of their children. Speaking negatively of others at home, programs the child to look for the negative in not only the person who is being put down but people in general. Discussing characters and scenarios from books and TV programs and asking them what the character may be feeling and perhaps why he or she made a particular choice can also be helpful. And, just moving about in society with our children as we do our errands, eat out, go to church, etc., provides limitless examples for empathy and demonstrations of cooperation--which is the next essential skill.
Cooperation is the action of two or more people in a given situation that will benefit them all. Cooperation is sometimes not entirely getting your way, but enough of your way to accomplish a task or the goal at hand. Children can be taught to see that cooperation, especially in group social situations and activities, is very beneficial and a way to bring your strengths to a common cause. Again, this promotes a sense of connection and contribution. Cooperating leads to the development of problem solving skills which not only are essential on the playground or classroom but in all areas of our lives on a daily basis.
When children learn and practice solving their peer (or any day to day) problems on their own, their ability to take care of and assert themselves is strengthened.
Primary Children's Medical Center Residential Treatment Center (one of the places where I had an internship) had a brillant formula to help children learn to problem solve (this works great for adults too). The Problem Solving Steps are numbered below:
1. Ask (yourself) "What am I feeling?"
2. "What is the problem?"
3. "What are my choices?"
4. "What will happen with each choice?"
5. Make a choice.
6. Be happy with my choice.
I add the caveat: "If you are not happy with your choice, you can make another one next time." These simple steps, when practiced regularly at first, become automatic. I've seen children work through the steps in a matter of moments in their heads. Most of the time, the best choice is made and a feeling of self control and confidence is promoted.
- Understanding and acceptance of self,
- Problem solving skills
Once these principles are in place, making friends and being a friend are skills that can be developed easily and quickly.
***Question for readers: What would you add to the above list of essential social skills?
Next time: Back to School-Part III: Making and Being a Friend