| Family Reflections |

Sensitivity Training

Some children are naturally tactful; others can be taught

Personality is, to a large extent, inherited. It’s then shaped and modified by the environment. No one knows exactly the proportions of influence each factor has, but we do know that both are important determinants of who we will ultimately become.  Of course, free will is the factor that determines what we will do with our genetic and environmental opportunities and challenges. The task of a parent is to work with her child’s inborn nature, provide the most nurturing environment possible, and help the child find and utilize his own power to make choices. 

Insensitive Natures

“I was mortified! My sister came to the States for my eldest’s bar mitzvah. This was the first time that my six-year-old Gavriel was meeting his aunt. When Gavriel came in from school and saw her, he didn’t say ‘Hello.’ He said, ‘You’re fat.’  “I apologized profusely to my sister and immediately sent Gavriel to his room. The thing is, I’m not sure that he knows what he did wrong. You could tell he was just describing what he was seeing. But what on earth is wrong with that child that he doesn’t know not to say all his thoughts out loud?” Children can be very embarrassing sometimes. But this parent’s concern goes beyond her own feelings. She’s genuinely concerned for her child. Why isn’t he emotionally intelligent enough to realize he shouldn’t insult someone to her face?  As with all innate dispositions, some kids are very in tune with the feelings of others and some seem oblivious. They’ll tell their peers straight out that, “Your picture is ugly,” or “I don’t like you.” They either don’t know or don’t care that they’re hurting someone. These kids aren’t immune to their own pain. If someone insults them, they can feel very hurt. However, they’re often confused when it comes to social interactions, not understanding their own role in their troubled relationships. 

Becoming More Sensitive

Sometimes a child with a lack of emotional sensitivity can benefit from education that teaches more appropriate behavior and helps the child to feel more compassion and sensitivity. But sometimes, this lack of sensitivity comes from a mental health disorder. In such cases, parents can help train their children to develop more appropriate behavior (what to say and what not to say), but may not be able to inculcate a more appropriate feeling response.  When a parent routinely provides “emotional coaching” to a child, that child experiences an increase in both socially appropriate behavior and an increased awareness of the feelings of others. Emotional coaching is the naming of the child’s feelings before attempting to educate, guide, correct, or otherwise intervene with other parenting strategies. For instance, if a child says he doesn’t want to go to bed, the parent first responds: “I understand. You want to play some more.” After acknowledging and accepting what the child is feeling, the parent would continue with a behavioral intervention. “Nonetheless, it’s bedtime, and we have to put away the toys now and get into jammies. You can play again tomorrow.” If necessary, this statement would be followed by other interventions until compliance is achieved.  Although emotional coaching has a proven track record of increasing overall emotional sensitivity and appropriate social behavior, parents often need to do more for their particularly insensitive child. Another strategy is to engage in direct education. This involves telling a child specifically what kind of words should never be said to a person. It includes defining “insult” and “hurtful,” offering examples and explaining that we should always look for (and comment on) something good in every person. A practical exercise would be to have the child look at a photo of a crowd of people and point out something nice about each one such as, “I like his hat,” “She has a nice smile,” “He looks friendly.” Training the child to find positive attributes helps him avoid communication errors while improving his own mood and life enjoyment. In addition, you can practice proper greetings with your child so that he learns simple phrases that will always be appropriate, like, “Hello,” “It’s nice to meet you,” “I hope you enjoy your stay.”  When you actively teach your child social graces, you give him a gift that will enhance his success throughout life.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 685)

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