Supporting Your Child’s Social-Emotional Growth
by Amy Vigliotti, Ph.D
Think of that special doorway in your home where you have marked the inches of your child’s growth. You and your child delight every time the pencil marks confirm how big and strong your child is getting! But how might you get your child as excited about their social-emotional growth? And how on earth would you measure that?
Here are some simple strategies that you can adopt into your daily routine:
Use emotion words in your daily language.
Beginning in infancy, your child is learning from your behavior. Babies first become aware of their emotion states through a natural social biofeedback process provided by the parents’ reflections of babies’ emotions. This “affect-mirroring” contributes to the ability to regulate, helps to provide a means for accessing and attributing emotions to the self, and enables infants to learn how to communicate and express emotions.1 Essentially, your daily emotional experience provides infinite teaching moments. This learning continues as your child grows.
In the morning, perhaps you feel anxious you aren’t going to get to work on time. Take a moment to pause and connect what you’re feeling with what your child sees. For example, you can say, “see how my body is moving quickly and I’m talking faster? I’m feeling nervous that I am going to be late to work and I’m going to miss something important or let someone down on my team.” This will help your child recognize how feelings and actions are connected as well as encourage your child to openly discuss his or her feelings.
Recognizing how our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all interconnected is a large part of social-emotional development. Children as young as age 3 show an awareness of other people’s feelings and can identify the specific situations that evoke different kinds of emotional responses.2 Studies have shown that those who read literary fiction develop better intellectual empathy, meaning they can better understand the thoughts and motivations of others.3
Bedtime reading is a great time to nurture this with curiosity about the characters’ thoughts, feelings and actions. Ask your child questions as you read along to encourage inferential knowledge, foresight and empathy. Let’s take a story where a 9-year-old boy wants to quit the baseball team because he keeps striking out at bat. This leads him to feel defeated and less capable than his team members. “Why do you think he wanted to quit the baseball team?” “What do you think will happen if he quits?” “What do you think would happen if he stayed on the team?” “How could the other team members help him feel less bad about himself?” This exploration of feelings in the imaginary world will help your child reflect on his own feelings and foster compassion for his peers.
Help your child self-soothe and cope.
Children can feel their feelings very intensely. Sometimes their reactions may seem out of proportion to the actual circumstances. With time, children can learn to regulate big feelings but they need our help to do that. With young children, we first have to help them name what they are feeling. For example, “I see you are so sad that your playdate is over. That’s understandable because it’s hard to say goodbye to friends and you miss the fun you had together. Let’s see what we can do to make you less sad.”
When kids are part of an environment that’s reflective and analytic as opposed to emotional and fast-paced, they learn to make better choices4. Where possible, parents can slow their children down and ask questions about what they are feeling.
Fred Rogers said it best: “People have said, ‘Don’t cry’ to other people for years and years, and all it has ever meant is, ‘I’m too uncomfortable when you show your feelings. Don’t cry.’ I’d rather have them say, ‘Go ahead and cry. I’m here to be with you.’”
Teach your child how to be a good friend.
To understand the full picture of your child’s social-emotional functioning, observe your child in all types of settings and see how your child interacts with peers. Watch on the playground, ask to quietly observe in the back of the classroom, attend parent-teacher conferences, and talk to friends’ parents. Being a good friend means many things: listening, sharing, looking out for the other, empathizing, working through conflict, honesty, and flexibility to name just a few. Depending on the age of your child, you may need to help him or her with particular challenges of friendships.
For example, I was working with a 7-year-old child in play therapy and I noticed he only wanted to play legos and would become easily frustrated and oppositional if I suggested another activity. He had to learn reciprocation in his friendships and learn to be comfortable with a wider range of play even if it meant he wasn’t as interested or as good as the other kids. This was a multi-step process. Before he could be more flexible in his play, his parents and I helped him tolerate the frustration of new or less desirable activities. This is key to building a child’s self-regulation skills. We don’t want children to avoid situations that are difficult for them, but they may need additional support and guidance before they can do it on their own.4
Overall, being curious, verbal, and modeling your own emotional experiences will shape your child’s social-emotional growth. You can develop a special “tool kit” for tough moments. Some families decorate a shoe box or cardboard box and fill it with the things their child enjoys.
Remember: interests and talents like books, legos, drawing, clay, baseball cards, playing with the family pet, and helping in the kitchen also act as coping strategies in times of need! Get creative and enjoy watching your child grow in immeasurable ways.
1. Fonagy, P. (n.d.). The Social Biofeedback Theory of Affect-Mirroring: The Development of Emotional Self-Awareness and Self-Control in Infancy. Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self, 145–202. doi: 10.4324/9780429471643-7
2. Borke, H. (1971). Interpersonal perception of young children: Egocentrism or empathy? Developmental Psychology, 5(2), 263-269.
3. Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science, 342(6156), 377–380. doi: 10.1126/science.1239918
4. How Can We Help Kids With Self-Regulation? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://childmind.org/