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Social Stories: How Children Build Perspective-Taking Skills

Tips for asking simple questions about your child’s thoughts and feelings.

Helping young children get in touch with their own feelings, and those of others, can be a challenge. When a child acts unkindly, parents and teachers ask often ask, “How do you think you would feel if someone did that to you?” We ask the question that way, rather than saying, “How do you think you made him feel?” because we know that young children have limited perspective-taking abilities. A question about their own feelings is easier for them to answer than a question that requires them to consider how somebody else feels. Yet, the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes is an essential skill for social development.

The best way that you can help your child develop these skills is to talk frequently about the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of people your child encounters in everyday life, as well as the characters in books you read together (or movies or television shows you watch together). Storybooks offer great opportunities to discuss the feelings of characters because, on average, children’s books focus on social interactions or feelings every three sentences. Unless your life often feels like a soap opera, the conversations that you have with your child – when they are not about books – probably include much less information about emotions!

Talking about the feelings of a character in a book, television show, or movie is also helpful because it gives your child a chance to talk about emotions when his or her own emotions are not running high. It is much easier to talk about hypothetical bullies, first days of school, or disagreements at home than it is to talk about the real deal. And I’ve found that these hypothetical situations can then provide parents and children avenues for talking about the complicated problems that do come up at home or on the playground.

For instance, when my son begins to order us around the house (like yelling, “Pancakes NOW!” one recent Saturday morning at 5:40 AM), my husband and I often tell him lightly that he sounds like Mr. Paine (the “terribly demanding” boss from Chris Van Dusen’s Circus Ship) or like the entitled archduke from Mac Barnett’s Extra Yarn. This strategy works much better than simply telling him that he is being rude or making us feel a certain way, because comparing him to the bad guys in these stories reminds him of how those bad guys make the protagonists feel. He likes the protagonists, and he wants them to be happy. And so, with just that amount of support, he is often able to make the connection… and realize that WE are the protagonists in the pancakes story now and he is being the villain. Helping him gain that perspective without forcing him to say the word “please” lets him begin to rewrite the story of our morning and cast himself in a new role.

Because stories rely on drama, using books or other forms of media to open up a dialogue about emotions can be relatively easy. Get started by asking simple questions about your child’s own thoughts and feelings, like:

  • What part of this story made you laugh the hardest?
  • What picture or scene do you think was scariest/sweetest/saddest? Why?
  • If you were [character’s name], how would you have felt when…”

By listening to the information they share, and then responding to tell them about your own reactions to the book, you can begin to discuss feelings and situations that you may not have talked about together before. You can also help them begin to think about the characters’ different points of view by asking questions about why they acted certain ways and whether the way they acted helped them accomplish their goals. Give it a shot! Not only can it lead to some interesting conversations about the books you are reading together, but it might also help your child play the hero instead of the villain in adventures around your home.


Dyer, J. R., Shatz, M., & Wellman, H. M. (2000). Young children’s storybooks as a source of mental state information. Cognitive Development, 15, 17-37.

More from Jamie Zibulsky Ph.D.
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