Can you teach someone to be sensitive to the feelings of others?

Is it possible to teach someone empathy, sensativity to the feelings of others, or sympathy? I ask because our youngest daughter (of six children), who is 13 years old, isn’t and it’s troubling to DH and I.

A couple of small examples:

She and my son started high school last week. At the bus stop, there was another girl starting as well, who just moved in two houses down from us. My daughter did not speak, introduce herself, welcome the girl to the neighborhood or anything! I felt like she should have at least said hello and made small talk since they will be catching the bus together, live so close, and the other girl is new to the area. When I talked to my daughter about why she should have been the one to take the initiative, she just didn’t get it. The next day she still did not speak to the girl!!

A few years ago, a friend of hers was spending the night. They were talking about typical girl stuff when my daughter said “well, you’re not the prettiest girl in the world”. :eek: I was mortified!

It’s almost as as though my daughter is a real life version of that movie Mean Girls and I don’t have a clue how she became that way! All five of our other children are naturally considerate of the feelings of others and she just doesn’t have a clue. We’ve taught by example as well as having direct conversations with her about this topic since she doesn’t seem to pick it by social clues.

Other than this one issue, she’s an academically bright, well mannered young adult. It’s when she’s around her peers that this side of her personality comes out. She’s the youngest child, so she’s had the benefit of seeing all of her older siblings demonstrate socially appropriate behavior. :::clueless:::

Is it too late for her to learn? How do you teach these things, which to me, are a reflection of your character and therefore should come somewhat naturally yet be developed as your social experiences broaden? How can I help her?

13 and starting High School?? Did she skip a grade or something?
Based on the examples given, I don’t see anything out of the norm here. Your view may be a little skewed because your other children are so outwardly polite.

It could be that she the black sheep of the family.
All I know is at thirteen I wouldn’t have introduced myself to the new kid. NEW kids are supposed to be made fun of FCOL! :wink:
As far as the other thing goes: Women can be catty sometimes but I’m sure you already know this.

You’re a good mom.

Just keep doing what you’re doing. When you see her act with insensitivity and cruelty, call her on it and advise her to be kind. She’s a teenager, and while your other kids may have skipped the “crazy, horrible teenager” phase, unfortunately many kids go through it. I know I did.

She may not get it now, but your lessons will likely be remembered leter on. Keep being the great parent you obviously are. :slight_smile:

What’s empathy got to do with it? You’re trying to teach her to be a fake person. So her friend isn’t the prettiest girl in the world, why must your daughter lie (and about something so trite… who IS the prettiest girl in the world?). If she didn’t want to say hello, maybe it just wasn’t her day for being friendly. Maybe she wants to check out the kid first, let someone else be their “first-pal”. If someone had walked up to the new kid and punched their face and your daughter yawned and checked to see if the bus was coming, you’d need have cause for concern over lack of empathy. Not for stuff like this. Let her be who she is.

I think some of it has to do with socialization. I was brought up rather isolated, and while my parents taught me good manners, I didn’t quite understand some of the patterns “normal” people follow. I’ve learned some of that through observing others. For example, offering to carry part of someone’s load, asking of anyone needs anything when you are going to the store, small talk, etc. I came up pretty closed off and neurotic about my own situation and it did make it hard to put myself in someone else’s shoes.

And I might have blurted out what I thought was the truth without thinking, not because I didn’t care but because I had never learned how to be diplomatic.

Yes, she skipped a grade.

Placid River- Teaching her to be a fake person? Not her day to be friendly? I think your post was serious so I’m going to go out on a limb and explain to you that I’m trying to teach our children to be courteous, polite, and have appropriate skills that will carry them well through all professional and social situations. There are times when you may not feel like being polite, but you should anyway. That’s a mark of maturity that I pray all of my children achieve.

As for the “not the prettiest girl in the world” comment, it was made in response to her friend sharing that she hoped to be a model when she grew up. I feel my daughters response should have been in support of her friends dream, realistic or not. I don’t think her comment was appropriate, and in fact I think it was downright cruel. I’ve tried asking her to put herself in the other persons shoes, but she still either can’t see how her responses are hurtful whether it was purposeful or not.

I suppose the rest of our brood picked these skills up by osmosis, because it wasn’t something we purposely set out to teach, but we definately model in our day to day lives. Since she hasn’t picked up on it, I’m just not sure how to reach and teach this to her.

Your two examples of her being…what, rude? un-sympathetic?..don’t seem at all strange or mean to me.

When I was 13 I wouldn’t have said hey to anyone new at the bus stop. I’d avoid them because I was too shy to go up to them, and assumed they would not like me so why bother. If my older brother (whom I followed around) went up to them and said hey I would follow along. If the new girl came up to me and said hey I’d say hey back.

If your daughter blatantly ignores the new girl’s introductions or spits in her face, THEN sound the alarms.

Regarding telling her friend she’s not the prettiest girl in the world…sounds harmless. She didn’t say “you’re ugly” or “you’re not as pretty as me.” What was the rest of the context of the conversation? Did you hear it? Sounds like your daughter was injecting a dose of reality into the “girl talk.” Not all girls like “girl talk.” :slight_smile:

Really, if she’s intelligent and has good manners, leave her be for now. If she’s just embarking on high school and she really IS mean, she’ll get put in her place eventually. Or she’ll find a group of like-minded intelligent folks with good manners to hang out with. Or both.

Unless you have more evidence about how rude she is, I’m inclined to say she’s ok.

Actually, I don’t think you teach emotions, I think the only thing you can do is to influence behaviors.

I certainly don’t think that 13 is too old to teach about proper social behavior. Sometimes it’s enough just to be a good example, and the kids (like your four others) emulate it as they grow up. Other kids (like your daughter) need to have stuff explicitly said to them before they get it. In my own case, I used to be rather blunt and abrasive about certain things, but it just took people to specificly point it out to me before I turned things around.

It sounds like she is most of the way there. You probably just need to point stuff out to her as you see it, like “ya know, Becky probably felt bad when you told her she wasn’t pretty. There are lots of kinds of modeling, and friends should encourage each other rather than insulting them…”. So I say, just keep right on talking to her about this stuff.

There’s the best quote about parenting I’ve read in quite a while.

I’m still like that. I’m not going to go up to a new person and start making small talk- I’m shy and really hate making small talk. My MiL is the opposite of this- she’ll ask complete strangers in a store whether something looks good on her or not. I wouldn’t even say hi to complete strangers in a store in most circumstances, and I’d rather shave my legs with a belt sander dipped in lemon juice than do anything like what she does. Some people are just less gregarious than others- it doesn’t mean we don’t sympathize with their feelings.

I wouldn’t worry too much about the other one, unless it’s a pattern, or if she said something else insensitive when her friend expressed unhappiness about what she said. We’ve all had our "I can’t believe I just said that :eek: " moments…

Absolutely. It’s a “mark of maturity”. She’s 13. She’s not mature.

Frankly, I wouldn’t have said hi to the new girl either, because I’m horribly shy. Small talk was never done at my bus stop anyway. We practiced social skills in the lunchroom, outside at recess, after school at play practice and in the hallways between classes. I never spoke a single word to anyone at my bus stop, and they never talked to each other, either. It was like being on an elevator - everyone stared straight ahead or kicked the dirt, waiting for the bus. Bus stop “companions” are not there to socialize, they’re there to wait for the bus.

To this day, if someone started talking to me waiting for the CTA, I’d sort of nod my head half-heartedly and move away. It’s just not what you do around here.

In short (too late!) I think you may be imposing your social rules on your daughter, without full understanding of the culture your daughter is in. Not only is she younger than everyone else, but you want her to act in what may be a very socially inappropriate way for her schoolmates.

And how did her friend take it? Was she upset? Did she start crying? Did she flee the house? Or was she appreciative of the honesty?

Not having been there for the whole conversation, I can’t say whether or not your daughter was cruel. It sounds for sure like she was honest. If the other girl has been over or called since, you can bet that she wasn’t crushed by it, and may very well have taken it as intended.

There may well be a pattern of events you’re not sharing that would indeed indicate cause for concern. But these two in isolation don’t worry me a whit. She sounds like a straightforward, no-nonsense kind of chick that I would respect immensely.

Empathy / social awareness does not come naturally to many people. Like, oh, me (I’ve done all the things you’ve described your daughter doing, or near enough). It’s simply not an innate skill. I started getting a better feel for the whys and wherefores when my son was diagnosed with mild autism - such kids are really, really prone to doing stuff like this. Not that your daughter is autistic (nor am I), but it does help me understand that sometimes this is genuinely due to brains being wired a bit differently.

I’d bet that these incidents are more along the lines of “totally clueless that such behavior is expected / not expected”, rather than any true desire to offend, right?

For what it’s worth - she can learn to behave in the expected manner. It may never come naturally, it’ll have to be a conscious behavioral decision each and every time (it does become more automatic, if that helps). I’ve learned to mimic the social niceties rather better than I ever did at age 13 though heaven knows, I’m not great at it!!! Still come out with the occasional embarassing whopper, still miss opportunities to make others feel welcomed, etc.

I learned, as well as I have, by trial/error, thinking through others’ reactions, having errors explained to me, etc.

That kind of behavior seems more like cluelessness than intentional mean-ness to me as well.
As someone who skipped grades myself, I think a lot of times, kids who skip ahead in school tend to have difficulty with social skills.
It’s very hard for a kid who skips grades to find genuine peers, since they’re ahead of kids in their own age group academically but probably still emotionally immature compared to the older kids in their classes.
I think that having direct conversations with her about her behavior and what’s expected is the way to go. It took me a very long time to figure out that my shyness made me seem rude or unkind to others because I was just focused on my own self-consciousness. If someone had pointed out to me what impression I was giving others, I think it would have helped a lot.

Just because someone isn’t the prettiest girl in the world doesn’t mean you tell her she isn’t. It’s not fake. It’s polite.

All I can say is that 13-year-olds are extremely self-conscious and maybe she’s moreso than your other kids. I’d give her a little time to pick up on it, and do keep correcting her when she insults people. She’ll catch on eventually.

I think you may be confounding a couple of different things.

Empathy it seems to me is founded on ego strength. You have to know how you feel before you can postulate how somebody else might feel; and then it’s yet another step to the (for some anyway) total mind blower which is that other people might not be/see/feel the same way in the same situation.

If this is really where the problem lies, I think you have to start by making an honest assessment of where she is developmentally with this – it comes to all of us at differnt rates, and I think it does have a developmental component. Most people learn to empathize by identifying with fictional characters first, then moving on to real people. Roleplaying, acting, and interviewing others can be useful stimulation, though.

As a member of a tribe of six kids myself (not to mention the gajillion cousins) I can say that most of us have had some level of feeling that other people, that is, non-tribal members, had a certain two dimensional quality in comparison to The Tribe in our youth.

I was myself quite aged before I really “got” that all the other kids in my class had, you know, families and houses and pets and what have you. That they had at least the trappings of a life which might just possibly be as important to them as mine was to me. That they did not cease to exist when I was not present.

Of course I suppose we all know people well into their fourth and fifth decades who haven’t got to the whole “other people have a life too” thing yet.

Which brings us to social awareness, a whole different matter. One can certainly pass as empathetic even while remaining utterly clueless about the real feelings of others – or even not caring about them. This is learned by practice, practice, practice. And feedback, feedback, feedback. Pre-event mental rehearsal is good for this. But you are going to have to put away that little feeling that this is a character flaw if you are to make any headway, I think; or else get someone else to take the lead role. Nothing like Mom trying to fix what’s wrong with you to inspire a good round of digging in the heels.

If her high school has peer counseling/facilitation/conflict resolution/whatever they are calling it nowadays programs, you might consider encouraging this.

This does not read well. I mean, if they have peer-to-peer program thingies she could sign up for, not that she herself needs counseling. There is a fair bit of explicit teaching about the kinds of things you mention in these programs.

Of all of the excellent insight given by everyone today (which I’m truly appreciative of, even if I didn’t agree with some of it) I think you’ve nailed something that it so true that it’s almost a bit uncomfortable. I have been viewing her actions or lack thereof as somewhat of a character flaw and that’s wrong on my part and thanks to your post my brain has began to make a mental shift toward teaching socially appropriate responses as the circumstances arise rather than preaching after the fact. A lot to ponder, and a dynamic shift in the manner I need to approach her from this point on.

Another point I’d like to address is that she is not an intentionally mean young lady, even though I realize I gave that impression in my OP. Now I realize that her actions are perceived as mean because she just isn’t able (yet) to put herself in the shoes of others before she speaks (or doesn’t speak). Once it’s pointed out to her, she’s usually mortified that that is the impression she left, genuinely apologetic, but doesn’t have the skills (yet) to pre-think about how her words are recieved and she truly doesn’t realize she’s made a mistake until it’s too late! We’ll begin to work on that with some role playing if she’s receptive.

She’s a very smart young lady, with a great (and sometimes bitingly funny) sense of humor. Even in the face of my bungling in handling this issue so far, she’s still brought her day to day trials and tribulations to me, so that leads me to believe that too much damage hasn’t been done in our relationship. She’s not your typical teenager that is beginning to shut out their parents … she’s still very open with her thoughts, feelings, and experiences, so I have a lot of hope.

Thanks again for all of your input. You’ve given me a lot of things to think about and I’m grateful.