How can I help my child . . . ?
- recognize others’ emotions and develop empathy
- be aware of their own impact on others
- be open to and accepting of differences
The main way children and adolescents explore and develop their own identity is through interactions and relationships with others, including their family, school environment and their peers. As they move more into their teen years, their social circle expands rapidly as they form new connections and relationships with peers both in-person and virtually through social media.
After elementary school, middle schoolers begin to seek more independence from adults and start forming close bonds with friends. This is when they discover characteristics and interests they share in common with others outside of their own family and learn what makes everyone different and unique. They are developing their sense of social awareness.
Social awareness is the ability to relate to others and understand where they are coming from. It involves the ability to:
- notice how others are feeling and respond appropriately
- feel empathy and compassion for others
- understand and respect others’ viewpoints and perspectives
- be open and accepting of others, including those from different backgrounds, cultures, and with different beliefs or values
Why It’s Important
While your child or adolescent might be becoming more independent, it’s important to remember that they still need your support to develop strong social skills. Schools don’t always focus on these skills in the regular curriculum and so it is often up to the parents to help their children learn open-mindedness, empathy, and how they influence the people around them.
When forming new social connections, middle schoolers tend to stay within their comfort zone and hang out with peers who are like them and share the same interests and values. However, encouraging them to develop friendships with peers from different backgrounds and across ethnic differences will help them become more adaptable, open, and less prejudiced as they grow up and become teenagers and then adults..
Research suggests that young people with strong social awareness skills
- make friends and new social connections more easily.
- adapt more easily to new people and environments.
- have fewer interpersonal conflicts and solve problems effectively when they arise.
- have fewer behavior-related issues at school.
- are less prone to emotional distress.
- are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as substance misuse
|Character traits / skills My middle schooler||Definitely describes my middle schooler||Somewhat describes my middle schooler||Does not describe my middle schooler|
|is a positive citizen in their school community.|
|participates in opportunities that contributes to the greater good.|
|can identify a need in their school community and discuss possible solutions.|
|can empathize with others’ thoughts, perspectives, and emotions.|
|can see when the viewpoints or perceptions of others are different than theirs and react appropriately.|
|has friends from different backgrounds.|
|can identify positive and negative stereotypes that may lead to discrimination and prejudice.|
|can recognize the value of different cultures and social groups.|
|participates in cross-cultural activities and demonstrates respect for other cultures.|
|appreciates others that have different social or cultural norms from themselves.|
|Review your answers to the survey. Were there any traits or skills you marked, “Somewhat describes my teen” or “Does not describe my teen”? If so, there’s no cause for worry. The great news is these skills can be taught, even to older kids and teens, and you can help! Read [this section] to learn how.|
Connect & Communicate:
Parenting a middle schooler can feel challenging in many ways and taking on the task of developing their social awareness may feel daunting. Although it takes some extra effort, making the time to connect and to communicate with your child can help them develop these critical skills they will use throughout their lives.
Here are some tips and ideas for connecting with your child and helping them develop strong social awareness skills:
- Talk often. Whether at meal times, during car rides, or before bed, try to have frequent, meaningful conversations with them. Even a little bit of daily conversation will help communication feel normal and less like “having a talk” when there’s a problem. Try the “60:1” rule: Rather than one 60-minute talk, aim for 60 one-minute talks with your teen by taking the opportunity to check in and chat with them several times throughout each day.
- Chat with your child specifically about friendships and their social life, including their online connections and communication. Open a discussion about what they think makes someone a good friend and the difference between respectful and disrespectful communication.
- Ask questions to help your child develop an awareness of how others are feeling. Ask, “How do you think __________ felt when …?” “How would you feel if that happened to you?”
- Look for opportunities to model and cultivate empathy and compassion, for example, “Your sister seems upset. What do you think might help. . . ?“
- Give your child opportunities to express their opinions on a variety of topics and issues. Ask questions to help them see other perspectives. “What do you think about …?” “How do you feel about …?”
- Teach them to disagree respectfully, using phrases like, “I see your point but, . . .” and “I see it differently. . . ”
- Respect your middle schooler’s need for space and independence while letting them know you’re there for them when they need help. They are more likely to come to you for advice about a personal challenge if they see you as a good listener and a trusted resource rather than a judgemental enforcer.
- Make an effort to get to know their friends. Be welcoming, but give them their space, too, so they feel comfortable around you.
- Encourage your child to try new things and get involved in activities to help them expand their horizons and meet new people. Find out about opportunities to participate in sports, clubs, affinity groups or volunteer groups, either through school, church, or local community organizations.
- Share news articles, books, or movies with your child related to race, civil rights, equity, equality, and social justice.
Contact & Collaborate:
Your child’s school along with local community organizations and other parents are great places to connect with for additional ways to support your teen’s social development:
- Find out how/whether your child’s school specifically addresses social skills and supports the development of students’ social awareness. Ask whether they offer any curriculum or programming specific to social emotional learning, diversity awareness. These types of programs may be offered as extracurriculars or after school programs and may be called “soft skills,” or “leadership skills.”
- Visit museums, cultural organizations and festivals that promote diversity and cultural awareness.
- Check out the extracurricular clubs and activities available at your child’s school. When entering middle school, there are more afterschool activities and opportunities or team sports.
- Learn what your local community has to offer in terms of youth organizations and community service opportunities. National non-profit organizations like Boys & Girls Club, Big Brothers & Big Sisters, and Girls on the Run, as well as local youth-serving nonprofits can be helpful resources.
- Join a local parent group either at the school or on social media.
Explore these resources for more ideas on how to support your child’s development of social awareness.
Search Institute’s Keep Connected Parenting Site:
Talking to Teens: Growing Apart in Middle School
Act for Youth Social Awareness and Empathy Resources
Learning for Justice – Social Justice articles and activities
Child Mind Institute Tips for teaching social skills at home