So many of our daily interactions require social skills, whether it’s ordering a coffee, solving issues with your co-workers, or offering someone a seat on the train. We’ve had years to build up our knowledge of what’s appropriate and inappropriate behavior – for example, not angering uncaffeinated people by skipping to the front of the coffee shop queue. But kids are still learning the basics. Kids aren’t born knowing how to interact with other people. But social skills are something we, as parents, can help them learn.
Things like sharing, taking turns, listening to instructions, following the rules of a game, resolving conflicts with their siblings and saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are all examples of social skills that children need to learn.
A lot of these social skills will develop as a result of watching you interact with others, and of course, by your kids interacting with you. That’s why spending quality time with your children every day is so important. Practice skills like sharing and taking turns, using eye contact, talking in a confident voice and even how to interact online. This will equip your kids with skills for forming relationships with other people like friends and teachers.
Communication is the foundation of social skills. But good communication requires more than just language. Kids need to learn ways to start conversations, choose what to talk about, and express their thoughts and feelings appropriately. Explain to your child that it’s not only what they say, but how they say it that matters. Their tone of voice, speaking volume, eye contact, facial expressions, and gestures all play a role in good communication.
While social skills often develop of their own accord, it’s not uncommon for children to need some help in developing them. Thankfully, that’s what you’re here for.
Look out for some of these common social skills problems in children as a sign that they may need some support from you:
If you feel that your child is taking longer than normal to pick up social skills, you could check in with your general practitioner or pediatrician to discuss the possibility that something else is going on. For example, some children with autism spectrum disorder find social interactions more difficult and may need extra support with developing social skills.
Just like us, kids don’t always ‘click’ with the people around them. We’ve all had to sit through an awkward work event or wedding where we barely had anyone to talk to. That’s fine every now and again but if your child consistently finds making friends difficult, there might be a reason.
It could be that your child is naturally shy and anxious. It might be especially hard for them to approach other people, start conversations and engage in play. If this is the case, it could help you to model effective strategies for engaging in conversation and meeting new people. You could discuss with them different ways to start conversations, specific questions they could ask other kids, or activities to share with another child at school or daycare. It is then important to rehearse these skills at home with your child, as this can help them feel confident to use these new skills in different situations.
Struggling to make friends could lead to low self-esteem, and may impact their mental health down the track. If your child isn’t developing friendships naturally, talk to them about it. Watch out for signs that they’re experiencing bullying. If other kids are targeting them, it may prompt them to avoid social interaction altogether.
If your child struggles to resolve conflicts without a full-blown meltdown or fist fight, you could consider introducing them to the Pause-Consider-Act strategy.
Following these steps can help your child think about the many ways to respond to social situations and keep them from acting impulsively. You could even make it color-coded and fun by using a traffic light analogy (red for pause, yellow for consider, green for act).
Encourage your child to practice the steps even when they’re not in the thick of feeling upset. For example, you might help a character in a book solve a problem by discussing how they might use Pause-Consider-Act. It’s great to openly use the strategy when dealing with your own problems too.
Maybe your kid is a pro when it comes to listening to instructions, but they’re not great at sharing. Helping them nail this skill will require an approach specific to sharing. Creating a Social Skills Practice Plan can help.
Here's how it works:
Here’s an example of a Social Skills Practice Plan for a child whose goal is to work on sharing:
Add any target behaviors to your family’s set of behavioral rules. This could include things like:
“Always say thank you when someone does something nice for you” “Ask permission before doing X”.
Talk to your child about what to expect if they don’t follow these rules or expectations and be clear that if this happens, you're going to call them out on it.
Toddlers and preschoolers may struggle with sharing, as they’re still learning to manage their emotions and see other people’s perspectives. However, it’s never too early to start encouraging this sort of behavior. Here are some tips to help a child learn to share:
Young children may play together nicely, but more complex friendships tend to start around school age. Talk to your child about making friends. If they’re struggling to develop friendships, ask them what they think the problem might be.
Make sure you also model good social skills for your child to help them learn by example. Even striking up a conversation with the cashier at the supermarket is a good example of how to interact with new people, skills which your child can use to make friends.
When kids need to apologize for their behavior, encourage them to do more than just say ‘I’m sorry’. Here are a few tips on helping your kids ace the art of apology.
Remember, your kids aren’t going to learn all the social skills they need overnight. And if they’re struggling you can always check with a doctor or specialist if you need more support.
There are so many nuances to how we speak, act and interact with each other. And a lot of adults struggle with some of this stuff too. Navigating social skills with your child may feel overwhelming at times but by persistently encouraging their social development with positive reinforcement, you can help them manage this big complicated world of social interactions.
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