What is one of your favorite childhood memories? Imagine back as far as you can to the clearest joyful image from when you were young.
If you are like most of the parents I ask in my workshops and seminars, odds are many of you chose a family holiday celebration or vacation, a special accomplishment, a meaningful ritual with a beloved individual, or unbridled play with friends or siblings.
Have you ever noticed that our happiest childhood memories involve moments of shared joy with people?
That is not simply a coincidence. Positive relationships are inextricably linked to our happiness and psychological well-being. Positive relationships are ones in which you engage in playful fun, feel genuinely valued and appreciated, and receive emotional support in times of need. In three words, they are full of…
Play. Interest. Empathy. Yep, there it is – PIE.
Good relationships have been consistently linked to a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, less physical and mental health illness, and longevity.
Socially competent and connected individuals get better grades in school; get more jobs, more promotions, higher salaries; have more meaningful and satisfying friendships, marriages, and family life (CASEL, 2003).
The research is clear and plentiful, socially-competent and connected individuals do better in life – they live happier, richer, healthier and longer lives.
Parents Matter Most
Studies have well-proven that a warm, secure, and positive parent-child relationship has the largest impact on a child’s emotional, psychological, and social development. Above all, the ability of parents to empathize with their children matters most.
When parents tune in, express care, and are responsive to their child’s emotional cues, their child is more likely to tune in, self-regulate, and respond to the emotions of others.
Our relationship with our children is the strongest predictor of our children’s social and emotional well-being now and later in life. This fact can be both empowering and daunting!
Not to worry, it starts with PIE:
- Encourage and engage in Play with your child.
- Show Interest by asking questions and actively listening with genuine curiosity and care.
- Give Empathy and comfort in times of hurt and need.
How to Promote Your Child’s Well-Being
There is truth to the saying that children learn what they live. So, I am going to give you the secret “ingredients” to the PIE – the key skills for you to model, nurture and grow within you and your child:
Engage in regular one-on-one connected time with each child doing an activity that your child enjoys. Set your intention to simply enjoy the experience together – to connect. This is not a time for coaching or advice-giving. It’s a time for shared joy.
Next, the interest-building skills:
2. Great Greetings
Be intentional with greeting your children and spouse with warmth and kindness each time you see them. A great greeting is comprised of 3 parts: Look at the person, smile and use a friendly voice to say “Hi” (or “Hello”, “Good morning”, etc.). Insist that your children provide great greetings to others, as well.
Interesting Note on Nodding: According to research, simply looking, smiling, and nodding acknowledgment to others – to more people the better in fact – significantly increases an individual’s likability factor, regardless of social status or peer group in school.
Therefore, I give this take-home practice – or more frequently take-to-school practice to my clients – asking them to look, smile, give a friendly small nod to others when they are walking down the hall or entering class, and simply notice what others do.
Well, smiling is contagious, just like yawning. The small face-to-face positive connection gives our brain and body a shot of feel-good chemicals that increase our pleasure, reduces stress, and fosters trust – making us more socially connected to others.
3. Ask Questions and Listen Actively
Go beyond the default “How was your day?” and ask questions about your child’s interests, opinions, feelings, thoughts, ideas, goals, and dreams. e.g. “What do you think about..?” “What do you like most about….?”
Take the time to pause, look and face your child with your whole body, be fully present to listen deeply and patiently. Your child will feel heard and most importantly, valued. Encourage your children to listen to others with their whole body as well.
Make giving genuine compliments a daily habit in your family. Complimenting others is an important act of kindness, which breeds more kindness.
Giving a sincere “Thank you for…..” is good for you, your child and your relationship. Gratitude and words of appreciation have been strongly and consistently linked to greater happiness, increased optimism, stronger relationships, and resiliency. At dinner, have each family member share What Went Well that day – 3 little things for which they are grateful.
Lastly, the most important piece of the PIE – skills of empathy:
6. Empathize First:
- Tune in: Reflect and name the emotion you see. For example, “You seem down, what’s going on?” “I can tell that was exciting/hard/upsetting for you.” “That must have been surprising/confusing/hurtful/frustrating.” “I’m sorry that happened to you.”
- Join their journey and explore further with gentle prompts. For example, “Tell me more.” “What was that like for you when…..?” “What excites/bothers you the most about this?” “I am here for you.”
Going to the Next Level
Some children need more than modeling and reinforcing to learn and develop good friendship habits. For instance, children with learning issues, attention weaknesses, Asperger’s, or mild to moderate autism often need social-emotional skills explicitly taught, trained, and coached.
Fortunately, social-emotional skills are teachable. Social skills training groups and camps are very effective when provided by trained and experienced professionals.
Creating Habits for Life Takes Practice. Lots of Practice.
Here are three additional quick steps to provide purposeful skill practice for your child:
1. Schedule frequent play-dates and get-togethers outside of school. Friendships emerge and skills are practiced when children engage with other children who share similar interests, on a regular basis.
2. Sign your child up for a small group extracurricular activity or club that meets regularly and is aligned with your child’s interests, nature and strengths (e.g. Chess club, Lego club, Robotic club, karate, sports teams, church or temple youth group).
3. Consider a social skills training group or camp if your child appears to need more systematic and structured social and emotional skills training.
Summary of PIE
We live in a time when the call for positive social connection is more critical than ever. You have the power to make a meaningful impact on your child’s development and well-being today and into the future.
Be who you want your child to become. Cultivate the kind of relationship you want your child to have with others – the secret to raising a socially connected child is in the PIE:
Encourage Play. Show Interest. Give Empathy.
Social-emotional skill development is a process that takes patience and time. Strive for progress, not perfection. Celebrate small successes. There will be struggles and social stress at times. Use them as teaching opportunities to advance your child’s social-emotional learning. Through struggle, comes strength.
Remember: How you interact with your child is your biggest teaching tool to boost well-being. So, use it wisely and purposefully. It will become as easy as PIE!