9 Essential Psychological Skills Parents Need to Teach Their Children
(in no particular order, and not exhaustive).
1. Making friends.
Some children won’t need much explicit teaching about how to make friends but other children will.
Especially for shy, anxious, or impulsive children, parents may need to role play “making friends conversations” with their child.
The skills all children need include how to: approach a potential friend, introduce themselves, ask questions, and find out what the other person is interested in.
2. Keeping friends and “repairing relationships”.
This includes things like how to apologize, and how to say “no” to a friend with minimal negative consequences to the relationship.
This includes calmly and directly expressing their thoughts and feelings about a situation, asking for what they want or saying “no,” and negotiating, restating their objectives, or walking away if necessary.
4. Healthy optimism.
Although wildly unrealistic optimism can have negative consequences and it’s important that children know how to keep themselves safe, a mountain of research has shown that slightly overinflated self perceptions and optimism are psychologically healthy.
It’s important that children
a) think of themselves positively,
b) expect that they’ll be able to form trusting/dependable relationships with other people, and
c) expect that good things will happen to them in the future.
Healthy optimism helps protect children against future problems like depression and anxiety.
People are born with a predisposition to experiencing high vs. low vs. medium amounts of negative emotions. Children who have a predisposition to strong/frequent negative emotions might need more help to learn to be optimistic.
5. Perspective taking
Learning how to see situations from different perspectives is an incredibly important psychological skill. Young children’s brains simply aren’t developed enough to do it (think of how young children will hide in Hide and Seek games by crouching down and covering their own eyes).
It’s important for children to eventually
a) understand that other people see the world differently from the way they do,
b) be able to put themselves in other people’s shoes and routinely do this, and
c) consider different types of causes for events.
For example – Is someone else behaving a certain way because of some aspect of their personality or some aspect of the situation?
6. Flexible problem solving.
People who are psychologically healthy are able to generate lots of possible solutions to problems. Especially as children get older, when they’re having a problem it’s helpful to encourage them to think of all the things they could try to improve their problem and then pick the solution they like best.
7. How to distinguish which emotions they’re feeling.
Children need to learn to distinguish which specific emotion they’re currently feeling (e.g. Am I lonely or am I bored, angry, sad, or anxious?) rather than only thinking about feelings in terms of good/bad or happy/not happy.
Accurately identifying emotions is the first step in being able to regulate the emotion effectively.
If the child knows they’re, for example lonely, as opposed to only knowing they “feel bad” that’s the first step in them making an effective choice about what to do about it.
This can help prevent self regulation problems.
8. How to regulate their emotions.
An extension of (7) is that children need to learn what to do to manage each of the different types of negative emotions.
For example, when they’re feeling nervous, they need to know some options for what to do about it.
They need to know that if they’re feeling “nervous” they could: do a simple self affirmation, practice the thing they’re nervous about, do the blowing bubbles breathing technique, do some physical activity (physical activity helps immensely with anxiety), or ask someone for help.
For “lonely”, they might know that they can invite a friend over, call Grandma for a chat, or immerse themselves in a fun activity etc.
Part of learning to regulate emotions is understanding that they come in different degrees (mild, moderate, and strong) and that its helpful to “catch” emotions when they’re mild and easier to deal with.
9. How to identify and react to other people’s emotions.
Children need to learn how to distinguish which emotions other people are feeling (e.g. is the person bored, angry, sad, or neutral) and how to react.
e.g. how can you tell when someone is teasing vs. being cruel (emotions manifested as behaviour).
This skill is important for the child’s social relationships.
– My brother is giving me signs that he doesn’t feel like playing right now so I’ll wait till later to try to get him to play with me. Rather than bugging him and getting yelled at.
– Children need to learn to distinguish “degrees of emotion” in other people e.g. so they know that when Mum or Dad are a little bit angry with them or each other it’s OK.
Different children will vary a lot in how much they seem to naturally pick up particular psychological skills vs. need explicit adult help with that skill.
Some kids will need more “scaffolding” of particular skills. This means more demonstrating and coaching, and breaking down the skills into smaller skills that are easier for them to learn (e.g. a child might need to practice approaching another child, saying their name, and asking the other child’s name, before moving on to practice the next stage of a making friends conversation).
Even bright children might need this help. This is especially true of shy or anxious children and introverts because these children don’t get as much exposure to “social learning opportunities” in peer interactions as socially confident extroverts. Notice things like if your child seems to prefer adult company or is socially awkward, and give them a hand up with improving their psychological skills.
Role playing is an excellent way to teach psychological skills. Both Dads and Mums should take turns practicing with the child when possible. It’s good for children to practice with more than one person and especially to get comfortable with people of different genders.
Socially anxious older children might benefit themselves from being given the job of helping “teach” friendship skills or assertiveness skills to their younger siblings.
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Head over to this page to read more posts about Psychology, Happiness, and Relationships from Dr Alice Boyes, Clinical psychology PhD, Christchurch, New Zealand.