UBC Psychology study: Understanding others helps children feel better

Photo description: Group of school children laughing and embracing

Children’s social understanding predicts their social-emotional health. Photo: Adobe Stock by Tom Wang.

A key to children playing nice is their ability to understand other people’s perspectives, according to research from the University of British Columbia.

In two large studies of children aged three to 12, researchers examined how children’s social understanding, or their ability to grasp others’ thoughts and feelings, predicted their happiness, relationships and how they handled emotions.

“We found that when kids are good at understanding how others think and feel, they tend to have better friendships, work together better, communicate more effectively and are more likely to help others,” said senior author and UBC psychology associate professor Dr. Susan Birch, director of The K.I.D. Studies Centre.

Conversely, children who struggled with this skill experienced more social-emotional difficulties, such as poor impulse control, hyperactivity, showing disobedience and misbehaving.

“Our big takeaway is that social understanding is a really important skill because it impacts so many different aspects of social-emotional health and wellness.”
Associate Professor, UBC Psychology

While previous studies focused on how social understanding affected individual aspects of social-emotional health, like friendships, this study considered 12 different dimensions and used a much more comprehensive measure of social understanding than previous studies.

Parents of 768 children answered a series of questions about their child’s ability to think and talk about other people’s mental states (e.g., intentions, desires, beliefs, emotions) and completed an assessment of their social-emotional health across the different dimensions.

“Our findings do more than show that social understanding predicts children’s social-emotional health, they importantly show which aspects of their social-emotional health are most strongly predicted by their social perspective-taking” said Dr. Birch.

In terms of social-emotional strengths, the researchers found the largest relationships between children’s social understanding and scores on communication, cooperation and their tendency to help and share with others.

In terms of social-emotional difficultiesthe largest relationships were found between the child’s social understanding and problems with hyperactivity, impulsivity, lying, cheating, fighting, and disobedience.

Smaller, but significant correlations were also found between children’s social understanding and issues with being bullied, playing alone, and feeling worried or depressed.

According to Dr. Birch, the findings not only show the role that social understanding can play in many aspects of one’s social-emotional health, but also highlights a potential path for improving children’s social-emotional health by fostering their social understanding.

“There’s a large body of research showing how children’s social understanding can be improved quite dramatically with relatively simple changes in the ways parents and teachers talk to their children.”
Associate Professor, UBC Psychology

Some strategies include asking children frequently about their thoughts and feelings, like discussing their day and how they felt about it, or when watching a TV show or reading together asking a child what the characters might be thinking or feeling and discussing why they think they might be feeling that way. Parents and caregivers can also talk about their own emotions and perspectives, so that kids can have more examples of how other people think, what motivates those thoughts and emotions and how to manage those thoughts and emotions.

“Our findings suggest that having more conversations with children about this inner world of thoughts and feelings will not only enhance a child’s social understanding, but also their social-emotional health and well-being,” said Dr. Birch. “Moreover, as children with social-emotional health issues are also at increased risk for physical health problems, enhancing their social understanding has the potential to dramatically improve their (and their parents’) quality of life in many ways.”

The findings were published in Psychology Journal: Research Open.