4 ways to increase kind behaviour in children and young people with social, emotional or life challenges

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A few years ago I had to cancel an appointment with an 11 year old girl as I was ill that day.  The next session she bought me a detailed “get well” drawing which she had obviously spent some time on.  It was a lovely gesture which made my day - and I stuck it up on my office wall where it stayed for quite some time.  It also told me something about this child’s strengths in empathy and emotional connection skills.

Many research studies have found that children who frequently act kindly towards other people are more likely than others to do well in many life areas.  For example, a longitudinal (long range) study published in 2015 by Jones and colleagues found that children who showed a much kindness and other “prosocial” behaviour when they were 5 years old had better mental health, lower levels of substance use, better relationships with others and better performance in the workplace when assessed nearly 20 years later (and this “more kind behaviour – better outcomes” relationship held true regardless of low or high school achievement at age 5).  This theme has been replicated in other studies – children and young people who act kindly have better outcomes in many areas.

It’s clear that helping our children and young people to act kindly should be an important goal for us as parents/caregivers.  And it is:  surveys find that parents/caregivers from all over the world (regardless of cultural background) value kind behaviour more than achievement in their children.

Unfortunately helping young people act in kind ways is not a simple task.  My experience is that many parents/caregivers don’t always know how to support their young people to act in kind ways – and many also worry about what they perceive as a lack of kind behaviour in their kids. 

This is particularly true for parents/caregivers of some young people with social, emotional or life challenges.  Parents of these children often describe concerns about their children’s difficulty in acting kindly towards their siblings or friends – or towards their family.

It’s not surprising kids with challenges find it hard to act kindly.  When we feel anxious, depressed, lonely or frustrated, or have significant stressors in our life it is much harder to notice or attend to other people’s needs.  If we also have difficulties with communication and comprehension of other people, then it makes prosocial and kind behaviour very difficult.

Despite these hurdles, I believe all young people – even those with significant life or emotional challenges - can be helped to act kindlier, more often towards others.  And it’s likely that this will then lead to improved wellbeing. 

Here are four ways we can help children with all levels of challenge to act in kind ways.

1. Talk to young people about – and help them experience - the benefits of kindness. 

Young people (like all of us) are more likely to do something when they know (and have experienced) something positive is likely to happen when they do it.   This does not mean we should give rewards to children and young people for acting kindly – in fact this may be more harmful than helpful as it can lead to them only acting in this way when they are physically rewarded.  But what it does mean is that we should help children and young people understand the immense positive power of kindness – both for themselves and others.

In part, this is simply about speeding up the natural human learning process about relationships.  As adults with more life experience than children we have probably acted kindly and then experienced subsequent good feelings about this, and good results from it.  We have also probably experienced (hopefully) the kindness of others and felt how it has been helpful to us.  We may have even experienced “kindness contagion” (a scientifically established phenomenon of how kind behaviour prompts more kind behaviour within groups of people) in a workplace or other community/sporting group at some time in our life.  

Younger people have not always yet had these life experiences and so it can be helpful for us to tell them about ours – and help them notice the beginnings of them in their own life.  In other words, we want them to notice and reflect on the good things which happen when people are kind. 

Usually this is best done via questions, rather than advice or lectures.  For example:

 “I wonder if that helped them in some ways?” (when we hear about an act of kindness).

“How did that feel?” (when they tell us about someone being kind towards them)

 “Was there anything helpful for you about that?” (When they tell us about someone being kind to them

“Did you feel like anyone has been helpful or kind to you at school this week?”

“It made me feel….it did this …” (telling them how we felt when someone acted in a kind way towards us)

How did you feel?  Was there anything good that happened for you after you acted in that way? 

Have you ever noticed that when someone does something kind towards another person, that person is more likely to be kind back?

I also tell young people about “kindness contagion experiments” - research which shows that if you show people kindness they are more likely to act in kind ways towards others.  One study I’ve found young people respond well to is done by Jamil Zaki (2016) In this study people were given a bonus for completing a task, and then asked if they’d like to donate it to charity.  They were also either told that people in the study before them had donated to charity too – or told they hadn’t.  Afterwards they were asked to write a letter to someone who was having a tough time, and those who had been told that others donated a lot to charity wrote a friendlier and kinder letter than those who had been told that others did not donate much to charity.

2. Show children and young people what it “looks like” to act kindly

One of the most effective ways of helping young people act in kind ways is for us to act kindly around them – both towards them, and towards others.  Psychologists call this modelling, and there is a hundred of years of research to show that young people are likely to “do what they see”: in other words children and teens who watch others act in kind ways more likely to act in kind ways themselves. 

A classic study in the area of kindness was one conducted by a psychologist called Rushton who asked preschoolers to decide to either share tokens with others, or keep them for themselves.  When a teacher gave away her/his tokens in front of the preschoolers before the children were asked to decide what to do with their own tokens, they were more likely to give theirs away – in both the short and the long term.    

When we act kindly towards others, children and young people notice – and over a lifetime they receive strong conscious and subconscious messages that acting kindly is the “right thing” to do. 

As well as acting kindly in front of young people, sometimes it can be helpful for parents/caregivers to verbally describe (out loud) their kind behaviour – not in a boastful way, nor lecturing way - but simply and matter of factly.  This is so children and young people have more opportunity to notice kind behaviour – and this is especially helpful for children who have emotional or social challenges and are not always as observant as other children.  For example:

“I bought Jane some soup tonight as she was having a hard time”

“I told John that I love his art work because I know it feels good to have people notice when we try hard at something”

“I just have to make a phone call as I want to ask Grandma if she is okay after her big day”

3. Provide children/young people specific ideas about how to be kind. 

It can be very helpful for some young people (especially those with life or mental health challenges) for us to tell young people the specific words they can say and actions they can take in order to be kind.

In other words, instead of just telling young people about kindness in general, we give them specific options for how to be kind.

Here are three specific ways of being kind I talk with young people about:

a)  Compliments 

(saying something positive about something a person has, has done or is connected to) – ie using “sentence starters” such as:  “I like your…”, “It was fun to …” , “I enjoyed your…”, “You are a great…”.  

b) Helping people when they have tough times. 

The first part of this kindness behaviour is noticing when people have tough times.  I talk with kids and teens about the kinds of tough times their families and peers might have (from tiny challenges – like dropping something or not being able to open the door – to larger ones – illness, tiredness, hunger – and negative emotions – sadness, loneliness, anxiety).  I then tell them about using what I call “check in sentences” such as “are you okay”, “Is there anything I can do” and “Can I help?”.    Then if they hear someone is having a tough time, thinking about what they might be able do to help the person cope with their challenge.  

c) Helping people have or do something that makes them feel good

For example noticing what makes people happy and seeing if we can make that happen (letting someone go first in a game, drawing a picture for them, buying them a chocolate bar, letting them choose what to do when hanging out)

Once we have explained these three strategies (compliments, helping people when they have tough times and helping people have/do something that makes them feel good) – then we can ask young people about how they might like to use each of these ideas.

For example,

“Are there any compliments you could give your brother/sister this weekend?”

“What makes your friend Jane feel good?  Is there anything you could do to help them feel good this week?

“Is there anyone at school you think might have a hard time with anything today? Is there any “check in” sentences you could use to see how they are going?” 

“What could you do Is there anything you’d like to do/say to offer to help when they are having a tough time?”

Danger alert!

While I’ve found this kind of coaching to be really powerful for some young people, I should point out that for some children, if we use it too often they can start to see kindness as another “job” that parents/caregivers are nagging them about.  If this happens it can actually reduce their internal motivation to act kindly.

To avoid this, most of the coaching we should do about kind behaviour should be based on questions – ie the examples above - rather than instructions or nagging, and on us sharing our experiences.  Coaching should also be short and intermittent (a few minutes every few weeks) rather than a long winded lectures which occurs constantly.

4. Notice kindness (or any steps towards it) in children and teens – and use acknowledgement and thanks. 

Appreciation and encouragement of behaviour in children does – in general - result in people acting in that way in an ongoing way.  In other words, when we notice, acknowledge and thank children and young people for acting kindly this is likely to help them continue to do it.

We can do this when we notice young people acting kindly (or even when they take a small step towards doing so).  For example we might use comments such as:

“I noticed you…I’m sure that made them feel….”
“I felt really proud of you for…..”
“When you did X…for me..it really helped me because…”
“Thank you so much for….I appreciated it because..”
“When you did X for Y, it meant they would have….”

A particular kind of acknowledgement of kind behaviour can be especially powerful - something called “character praise”.  Character praise is telling children and young people we believe they have positive personal qualities, for example:

You are a person who is kind to others.
I can see you really like to help other people
I notice that you are becoming more and more kind to others all the time. 

An experiment in 1980 by psychologists Grusec and Redler  found that 7-10 year old children who were told “I can see you are the kind of person who likes to help others” were more likely to show more helpful behaviour later than children who were told “good helping”.

Danger alert 2!

It’s important to avoid praising children every time they are kind and also to use exaggerated praise (you are the NICEST child in the WORLD).  The key to acknowledging praise in children and young people is to be genuine and caring – rather than using it to try to control a young person’s behaviour.

To summarise then, here are the key actions we can take to help young people act kindly:

  • Help children and teens see the benefits to others (and themselves) in acting in a kind way

  • Act in kind ways ourselves – towards our young people and toward others - to provide a model for children and teens to copy

  • Give young people specific examples about how to say and do kind things

  • Notice when children and young people act in kind ways and gently acknowledge this.

If you have a 5 to 11 year old child and would like them to watch a 3 minute animated video on kindness, check out Calm Kid Central below. 

All the best with your support of your young people as they discover the joy of acting in kind ways.