What is Perspective-Taking in Childhood?
Perspective-taking in childhood is understanding that another person’s thoughts and feelings are different from one’s own. Children with good perspective-taking skills are able to assess what another person may be thinking based on the situation.
For example, if a friend got a good grade on a test, the friend is probably thinking “This is great! I rocked that.” Or another friend may have parents who are getting a divorce. That friend is probably thinking, “Wow, this is going to be really hard for me and for my family.”
Sometimes this type of perspective-taking is called ‘Theory of Mind’ in that the child is able to come up with a theory about what is going on in the other person’s mind.
Perspective-taking allows a child to be patient with another person, to understand the other person’s experience, to know what the other person wants, and what might help get those needs met. In developmental psychology, this is a social life skill or milestone.
Perspective-taking allows a child to understand some of what another child is experiencing. Even very young children in preschool are capable of perspective-taking. They see a peer or younger child upset and they want to help.
A small child with good perspective-taking might put a hand on the child’s shoulder and say, “it’s okay.” Another child with good perspective-taking might approach the teacher and say, “Steven is upset, and he needs some help.”
These children understand Steven is sad and know what sad feels like even if they are currently feeling happy. They wish to help. They do not ignore him, overreact or become annoyed. They understand that Steven has a different perspective.
Symptoms of Difficulty with Perspective-Taking in Children
- Unsure of what to say to another child: your child struggles with relating what a peer is saying to them and responding with an appropriate answer
- Hanging back in a social situation: your child appears nervous or very quiet with new groups of peers
- Seeming unusually self-focused: your child likes to play games and talk about their own interests with others without inquiring or noticing if their peers share those interests
- Difficulty telling you their friend’s interests, thoughts, or opinions: your child is unaware of what is important to their friends, often looking at you with a blank face when asked
- Only talking about videogames, minecraft, or another topic of interest: your child has a topic they enjoy talking about, and they talk about it constantly without checking in with other kids to see if they are interested
- Not making close connections: your child doesn’t have many close friendships
- Unsure how to respond to another person in an emotional situation: your child is unaware of how to identify the feelings of another and respond appropriately
- Friendly and kind but misunderstands if they hurt someone’s feelings: your child is unaware that what they said or did was hurtful to their friend
- Seeming to have unreasonable expectations of younger siblings: your child wants everyone in the family to have the same rules and responsibilities regardless of age
Examples of Healthy and Unhealthy Perspective-Taking in Childhood
These examples are from first-graders when asked about their friends and what they like to do together.
Examples of poor perspective-taking
One child said, “I have two tiny friends; their hands are so small and so cute!”
Another said, “Sarah has a broken leg, and Anabel doesn’t.”
This is poor perspective taking because this child is not seeing her friends as people with their own ideas but rather using physical appearance to describe their relationship.
Examples of good perspective-taking
A more appropriate answer is “Mark is really smart. He loves to read anime, and we like to work together in math. We love M&M counting games!” or even “Keisha and I play puppies at recess. We both have dogs, and we like them more than our little brothers!”
This is good perspective-taking because this child is able to share something about a friend’s interests, experiences, and perspectives.
A young child who studies other people with intent instead of studying the object is more likely to develop perspective-taking skills. They are seeking to understand people around them, and their brain is going to develop this skill accordingly.
A child with solid perspective-taking will understand what you know about a topic and what he knows. If the child is unsure he’ll ask, “Have you seen the new Marvel movie?” This way he knows how much background to give. In contrast, a child with poor perspective taking assumes you know everything they know about the movie and will launch right into a story without establishing the context of the conversation.
Causes of Poor Perspective-Taking in Childhood
In child development, social skills develop at different rates; however, some social milestones help children understand how to engage with each other. If a child fails to master a skill like perspective-taking by early grade school, it can cause some social difficulties.
Autism, ADHD, or intellectual challenges are some reasons that a child may have trouble in this area.
Autism spectrum disorder
Autism spectrum disorder includes challenges in social communication and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior or interests. Social communication challenges in autism often include difficulty with knowing what to say, carrying on back-and-forth conversations, and reciprocity.
Individuals with ASD may struggle to know how to contribute meaningfully to a conversation or interaction. These challenges stem in part from struggling to understand other people.
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What happens for these individuals with autism is as follows:
- Internal or Object Focus: Children with autism are often focused on their own thoughts and ideas. They tend to be drawn to objects rather than people. As young children, when others are actively watching, imitating, and listening to other peers and adults, children with autism are figuring out how to reprogram the computer. They are studying the vacuum and taking it apart.
- Poor Eye Contact: Children with autism do not practice taking the perspective of others. They do not focus on others in that way. Indeed, not all children with ASD struggle with eye contact. Some do though, and this challenge means that they often interact with other people without looking at them. They don’t spend time trying to understand someone else’s gestures and facial expressions. This behavior results in continued challenges with perspective-taking.
- Focused on Detail: A young child in his or her own world can miss out on the social world around them. Many children with autism develop an uncanny skill for noticing detail and seeing tiny parts of a picture, a Lego model, and the remote control. They can take something apart or put it together in a way that other children cannot.
Young children and ASD
Imitation: A young child who is not developing typically may not imitate adults. He may appear to be in his own world. He may spin around or flip objects, rather than try to use them functionally.
A child with solid imitation skills uses observation to understand the way people work and to make sense of the human experience. Take this one-year-old we know as an example. He can watch his mother or father do something once, even while appearing interested in something else, and then he’ll imitate it.
He grabs the hand blender out of the cabinet and starts making a “vrmmm, vrmmm” sound as if he’s blending a smoothie. He takes the (cold) hair straightener from the bathroom and puts his own hair in it. He takes a coffee mug off the table and places it in his pretend sink.
Imitation from a young child shows that the child is watching and paying attention to what others do.
School-age children and ASD
Narrative Coherence: An older child with autism may demonstrate poor perspective taking via poor narrative coherence. This difficulty can be evident in conversation because children may struggle to tell an event or story in sequence with the relevant information present. They start in the middle of a story. They don’t tell the sequence of events and they struggle to give relevant details.
You may hear a story about ‘Bobby’ and have no idea who ‘Bobby’ is. He could be a neighbor, brother, cousin, or uncle; it is unclear because the child did not provide that information.
Teenager and ASD
Misinterpretation: Teenagers with poor perspective-taking tend to misinterpret the intent of others. A teenager may say that someone was making fun of them when the student was trying to help.
Conversely, a teenager may think someone is a friend when the peer has poor intent. Some teenagers will remain quiet. They will disengage from social situations because it is unclear to them what others are thinking and feeling.
A savvy teen knows who his friends are and who is making fun of him. He knows what to say in a conversation and who to spend time with because they have his best interest at heart. Teenagers with autism need support from kind, savvy peers to help reduce misperception.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Sometimes, children with attention problems pay so little attention to those around them that they struggle to understand or describe the perspectives of their peers.
includes deficits in cognitive ability (low IQ scores) that inhibit appropriate insight and responsibility. Perspective-taking requires a level of abstract thinking that can be hard for a child with an intellectual disability.
What to Do about Poor Perspective-Taking in Childhood
Teenagers: Gullible or Overperceiving the Negative
A teenager with poor perspective-taking can run the risk of being vulnerable to the ill-intentions of others. In this case, the teenager needs to have savvy peers he or she can trust to check in with for confirmation.
Help your child understand the intentions of others: One of our clients reported that he would ask a few trusted friends “Does Sarah like me, or is she making fun of me when she does that at lunch?” His parents really could not help in every situation, but his closest friends were helpful. The teenager was subject to being used or manipulated without this support.
As a freshman, he let the junior girls eat his fries and chips at every lunch. He loaned lunch money to those who asked and passed out chewing gum after school. He realized with the help of others, that most of the girls he was hanging out with were taking advantage of his kindness. When it came time for football games, dances and parties, they did not include him. He found more genuine friends who did help him and by junior year he did have a prom date and true friends to hang out with.
Another risk for teenagers with poor perspective-taking is that they will think the worst of others and not see that their peers are tyring to help and be kind.
Help your child find one or two genuine friends: help your child find at least one or two genuine friends, you will find that your child is happier and more successful. Kids do not have to be the most popular, but a couple of close peers make a world of difference. Help and open communication from parents and close friends really can do the trick.
Children: Tend to be Concrete
Teach your child what is known and unknown to others: Help your child understand that their friends will not know all the people they know, have seen all the same movies, or have gone on all the same vacations. The vital thing to do is ask. Before telling a story about a trip to Florida, teach your child to say, “Have you ever been to Florida before?”
Children with autism tend to be very concrete and respond best to facts and information. A child who develops these skills early will have fewer problems as a teenager. We need to help children understand another person’s perspective.
Practice telling succinct but complete stories: with your child, practice asking good questions. Make up flashcards of common questions your child could ask and practice having a back and forth conversation about a story with your child asking you about your thoughts, feelings, and perspectives.
Provide social experiences: for your child, find groups, sports, or clubs related to their interests. Have playdates with one child at a time who is a good friend. If these are hard for your child, make them more themed or structured. Have a planned activity, and keep the playdate short and sweet to encourage success.
Be an emotions detective: watch a movie together with the sound off. Ask your child, “what do you think that lady is thinking?” “What do you think she is worried will happen next?” Then turn on the sound and see if you got it right.
Young Ones: Engage and Connect
Join your child’s world: with your young child who studies details and figures out how things work, a parent needs to try even harder to join with and engage this child. Point things out that are of interest, share with your child your feelings and ideas about the topic
Playdates with peers who have similar interests: with your child, find something your kid likes to do and join another peer who enjoys a similar activity like going to the park, a trip to the zoo, or a quiet storytime at the library.
When to Seek Help for Poor Perspective-Taking
If you have tried these strategies and are still seeing your child struggle socially it can be great to get some help. Usually, children and teens really enjoy and appreciate a chance to work with someone on social skills.
ABA Therapy, Social Groups, and Psychotherapy: For young children, Applied Behavior Analytic (ABA) therapy can be invaluable. A child’s brain can change to be more aware of others. A child can learn to attend to and respond to others in the environment.
As children are school-aged and teenaged, social skills groups and psychotherapy can also help extensively with perspective-taking. Practice with these social skills and feedback and support from a trusted adult can go a long way. It may be common that a teenager who has these social struggles also has anxiety because of a pattern of social rejection. Psychotherapy can help with any associated symptoms like anxiety that may come up.
Professional Resources on Perspective-Taking
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to provide an evaluation for diagnostic clarification; an evaluation can produce a profile of your child’s strengths and weaknesses. A psychologist may also run a social skills group to provide direct strategies and practice to improve social skills
- Psychotherapist: to provide CBT interventions that have been shown to be effective in helping children with ASD make gains in recognizing and understanding emotions, personal insight, improving perspective-taking and social skills, and managing co-occurring depression and anxiety
- ABA therapist: to provide Applied Behavior Analysis using principles of reinforcement to increase desired behaviors like communication and language and to decrease undesired behaviors like hitting/tantrums. For some children, ABA may be a good way to address personal responsibility, social skills, conversation, and social perspective-taking
- Speech and language pathologist (SLP): to provide speech and/or language support. The SLP is an important member of your treatment team if your child has language delays. Treatment works best if all team members can communicate with one another to make sure your child is getting comprehensive services
Similar Challenges to Poor Perspective-Taking
- Social skills: perspective-taking can be associated with a large range of social skills challenges such as insight, empathy, and social communication
- Insight: poor perspective taking goes hand in hand with poor insight or the ability to understand and process one’s own emotions as well as those of others
- Restricted patterns of behavior or interests: perspective-taking can be related to restricted patterns of behavior. When a child is unsure of perspective, they may stick to their own ideas or interests and may be repetitive in language, interests, or actions
- Pragmatic language: perspective-taking can be hard for children who do not understand the social language that occurs among peers. For example, they may misinterpret body language and nonverbal cues during conversations and not be able to take on the perspective of conversation partners
- Social motivation: perspective-taking can also be associated with social motivation challenges, meaning that the child does not actively seek out friendships or initiate conversations
- Self-esteem: perspective-taking issues can be associated with poor self-esteem. Children with poor self-esteem may not have the confidence to make social connections or the willingness to fail or make a misstep. Building social skills and social successes can be so important as it builds confidence and provides sources of pride
Resources on Perspective-Taking in Childhood
Kroncke, Anna P., & Willard, Marcy & Huckabee, Helena (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Fein, Deborah (2011). “The Neuropsychology of Autism”
Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.
Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation.
Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.
UCLA PEERS Clinic https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers
Giler, Janet Z. (2000). Socially ADDept: A manual for parents of children with ADHD and / or learning disabilities.
Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s.
Baker, Jed. (2006) Social skills picture book for high school and beyond.
Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.
Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.
McConnell, Nancy & LoGuidice (1998). That’s Life! Social language.