When my oldest daughter was in kindergarten, she was convinced a classmate didn’t like her because he would knock her book off the table and bump into her several times each day. The teacher observed that the boy wasn’t being deliberately mean — he simply liked Naomi and was rather clumsy, as so many kindergartners can be.
My daughter’s confusion wasn’t unusual. “When we are young, we are more concerned with ourselves,” says Melissa Divaris Thompson, a licensed marriage and family therapist and co-founder of Honest Mamas. “We learn through time to be more polite and regard others and their feelings.”
Every child — and adult — struggles with how to interpret others’ motives, often assuming the worst. It’s natural to think everything is personal, but we need to step back and look objectively, says Lynn R. Zakeri, a clinical therapist. Zakeri uses the example of someone cutting us off in traffic. Rather than simply assigning negative motives, she says, “we have to go that extra step to say the person might be running late or did not see me in his blind spot. Being a victim can become a habit.”
This mindset allows us to treat others with more courtesy and empathy as we focus not on ourselves, but on the other person. And we need to teach our kids to do the same, starting as early as preschool. Whether a child is a pessimist or an optimist, parents should encourage them to think the best of others. By focusing on constructive or affirmative motives, a child can begin to see the world as a place of encouragement, rather than discouragement.
“It’s important for kids to start learning their emotional landscape and their range of feelings,” Thompson says. “Learning to live with compassion not only for themselves but others is really important.” Here are some suggestions on how to do that.
Validate their feelings. Don’t dismiss your child’s feelings. “Acknowledge your child’s feelings, because those are valid, before trying to see the situation from another perspective,” Thompson says. “Giving more freedom to feel their feelings” and having them aired “can open kids up to see more options when it comes to another’s motives.” This can assist kids in learning compassion for themselves, as well as others.
Ask questions. Parents can guide kids to examine the situation through open-ended queries, such as “Do you have all the information? Have you clarified your assumptions with the other party?,” says Scott Amyx, author of “Strive: How Doing the Things Most Uncomfortable Leads to Success.” By asking such questions, you invite the child to participate in the outcome vs. lecturing the child on what that outcome should be. A child who can find his way to a more compassionate response on his own is much more likely to execute that response.
Provide insight. Kids don’t understand that there are multiple ways to look at something. “They go from ‘I am the universe, and everything I experience is real and truth’ to eventually maturing enough to understand there are multiple realities, and people simply think and behave differently when juggling their own challenges and emotions,” says Tim R. Thayne, a marriage and family therapist based in Utah. Helping kids figure this out is key to moving them past assigning negative motives to others.
Ignite their curiosity. When your child feels affronted, Thayne recommends having him come up with five alternative motives for someone’s action or behavior. “Helping your child or teen understand that there are infinite numbers of meanings that could be placed on any given behavior makes room for accepting that their one idea could be a mere possibility rather than a rock-solid reality,” he says.
Develop a positive mind-set. “Getting kids in the habit of using positive thinking tools like daily mantras, journaling or meditation sets them up to see everything more positively,” says Sal Raichbach, of Ambrosia Treatment Center. This can be harder with kids who have a natural disposition to be negative, but it’s worth the effort, because having a negative outlook on life “reduces happiness and psychological well-being, making them more prone to mental health issues like depression and anxiety,” Raichbach says.
Remind them of the past. When one of my kids is frustrated with a sibling, I help them remember the good that sibling has done in the past to balance the negative, present action. Doing that can soften the hurt feelings and put the behavior into broader context. Caryn Antonini, founder/CEO of Early Lingo, says she also does this with her two boys, citing instances where one has been kind, helpful or loving toward the other.
Model behavior. Parents should let their kids see how they react to situations, such as when a motorist changes lanes quickly. You might observe aloud that the driver could be rushing to the hospital or just having a really bad day. “It probably has nothing to do with you,” says Paul Christoffersen, of Christoffersen Coaching. “This is a game that parents can play with the kids from a very early age all the way through high school, and it helps teach kids that things may not always mean what they think it means.”
Teach empathy. If we can default to thinking more about the other person and their perspective, we’ll approach life with a more positive outlook. “We need to teach our children to have empathic reactions to situations,” Zakeri said. “The bully may get bullied at home. The mean teacher may be grieving or stressed. We can’t assume everything is awful and about us.” Here’s one example: A teenager comes home from school and says something in a sharp tone of voice to a sibling. If instead of assigning a negative motive — he’s being deliberately mean — the sibling concludes that perhaps the teen had a rough day, the sibling can then offer a gentle, loving response. Empathetic thinking can de-escalate, rather than ramp a scene up to a harmful level.
Ultimately, we feel better when we focus on optimistic outcomes than on worst-case scenarios. “When children believe the worst about others, they begin to internalize, and anger and depression begin to fester. One of the most powerful inheritances that we can give our children is the gift of coping skills,” Amyx says. “Developing a toolbox of coping skills may turn out to be more helpful than any wealth, family prestige or exclusive network that we can hand down to our children.”