Is your child:
Children who have difficulty being part of a back-and-forth conversation may be having difficulty with emotional awareness and emotional reciprocity. Emotional awareness and reciprocity means knowing your own feelings about a topic, being able to read other’s emotions, and offering emotional support as needed.
Young children use words like sad and happy. They notice if someone else is crying or upset. Children with social reciprocity offer comfort and ask questions about people’s feelings. As they get older, children get better and better at identifying and understanding a vast range of emotions. Children and teenagers can express and understand complex emotional states.
Some children seem to be disconnected emotionally. If you ask how they feel, you get “I don’t know” as a response. Your child may say he “never thinks about feelings.” He might puzzle over the question or give a highly intellectual answer.
Emotional reciprocity and emotional awareness may be absent or impaired for a number of reasons. These skills are important. To make strong connections with others, it is helpful to be able to understand how the other person feels and to be empathetic when considering the other person’s emotional experience.
If a person is only able to focus on her own emotions and not on other peoples’ emotions, it may feel unpleasant to be with her. If someone is unable to have insight into his own emotions or someone else’s, making a deeper social connection is very challenging.
Children, teens, and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders often struggle with emotional awareness and emotional reciprocity. When evaluated through tasks on the ADOS-2, a person might say, “I don’t know” to all emotion questions.
He might describe things that make him feel happy or afraid but fail to offer any explanation of what it feels like. Someone who says “skiing makes me happy” may respond to “what does happy feel like?” with “it feels like getting on a pair of skis.” This response is an action not an emotion.
For comparison, here is a response that includes awareness of emotion. Happy feels like “a light feeling in my chest and a warm ray of sunshine touching my heart.”
Inattention associated with ADHD could also lead to some of these challenges because failing to pay attention to the other person impacts your ability to notice emotions. Anxiety, depression, or trauma may lead to impaired emotional reciprocity because it is better to bury those feelings, it is hard to trust others and it is emotionally painful to consider anyone’s feelings.
In differentiating the emotional and the ASD-related causes for this deficit, consider whether the individual is literal and concrete or emotionally wounded/traumatized or anxious .
To help your child with empathy, practice with storybook characters and movie actors. You can read stories with a younger child and discuss the plot afterward, focusing on the emotions and not just on the details of the story. Try watching a T.V. show with no volume and see if your child can guess how the characters are feeling.
Comment on your own feelings and why you feel that way. “Mom is really stressed out because of this traffic. I’m going to take a deep breath and try to find a fun song for us to listen to on the radio.”
It can be helpful to name and label your child’s feelings and to help him determine what may have triggered that emotion. For example, “You look really excited, and you have a lot of energy. I wonder if you are excited about Mary’s birthday.”
Research shows that labeling strong emotions can help to bring down the intensity, which is the foundation of the new term ‘name it to tame it’ by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne-Bryson . For more significant problems with empathy, it would be a good idea to reach out to the school counselor or school psychologist and to consider having your child join a lunch bunch or social skills group to practice empathy skills.
If your child really struggles with the empathy needed to form friendships, it may be worthwhile to consider an evaluation with a psychologist. It is possible that your child has an underlying disability that is at the root of these challenges.
If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.
Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.
These professionals may recommend the following tests for this symptom:
 Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
 Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.
 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.
 Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.
 Trawick-Smith, Jeffrey (2013). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective.
 Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation.
 UCLA PEERS Clinic https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers
 Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.
 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.
 McKinnon, Kelly & Krempa, Janis L. (2002). Social Skills Solutions: A Hands-On Manual for Teaching Social Skills to Children with Autism.
Children’s books on social skills:
Brown, Laurie Krasny & Brown, Marc (2001). How to be a friend: A guide to making friends and keeping them (Dino life guides for families).
Cooper, Scott (2005). Speak up and get along!: Learn the mighty might, thought chop, and more tools to make friends, stop teasing, and feel good about yourself.
Cook, Julia (2012). Making Friends is an art!: A children’s book on making friends (Happy to be, you and me).
Meiners, Cheri. (2003). Understand and care.
Gordon, Jon (2012). The energy bus for kids: A story about staying positive and overcoming challenges.
Rath, Tom & Reckmeyer, Mary (2009). How Full Is Your Bucket?
Cuyler, Margery (2007). Kindness Is Cooler, Mrs. Ruler.
Description: little girl apologizes to offended boy
Image ID: #54390640 (iStock)
Previously licensed on: October 29, 2016
Stylized by Katie Harwood, exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology