For most parents setting boundaries for young kids’ behavior is second nature: No hitting. Don’t interrupt. We don’t grab toys out of other kids’ hands.
But as they get older, and social interaction gets more complex, it’s not enough to just learn the rules. They need to learn to set boundaries for themselves and respect those of others. And that takes being able to recognize what others want and need — and express what they want and need, too.
“Boundaries are essentially about understanding and respecting our own needs, and being respectful and understanding of the needs of others,” explains Stephanie Dowd, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, “and for that to work, we need to be putting a big emphasis on helping kids develop greater empathy and self-awareness.”
Why is empathy important?
For some parents, the idea of teaching children who haven’t quite mastered the art of tying their shoes to be more empathetic might seem a little absurd. But you can help them slowly build an awareness of others. Kids may not grasp the subtleties of what it means to be empathetic, but they don’t need to.
“You’re not going to sit down with a 4-year-old and say, okay, this is what empathy means,” says Rachel Busman, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “What we want is for kids to start developing that awareness of how others are feeling, and begin using it as a kind of guide for how to behave.”
And at the same time, we want to help kids get comfortable with articulating their own feelings and setting limits, even as they respect others’ limits. That takes practice.
How to help kids develop empathy
“Empathy is something we think of as being very adult,” says Mandi Silverman, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “But in reality, by age 3 most kids will instinctually show concern for a crying friend, or realize when someone has a “booboo” and want to give it a band-aid.”
Younger kids often learn best by experience, she explains, so parents should start by addressing problem behaviors when they happen. “Social skills coaching is always best when you can do it in real time,” she says, “They’re more likely to remember what to do in that situation and be able to replicate the behavior next time it comes up.”
Luckily (or not), most kids offer ample opportunities to practice intervening in the moment. For example, “How do you think Mark felt when you took his toy away?”
If your child grabs a reluctant friend, you could encourage him to think about how his friend might be feeling, and why asking before touching is important. “It’s important to ask before touching someone else, because that person might not be feeling well, or they could be in a bad mood and not want to play just then.”
Sometimes kids’ egotism can be a helpful tool, says Dr. Busman. “Ask your child to think about how he feels when his sister won’t let him play with her friends, or won’t share her dessert. Then ask how he thinks she’d feel if he did the same.”
Using your child’s feelings as a mirror for others can help create perspective — and give him a chance to link actions to the feelings they cause.