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5 Ways to Help Your Child Build Healthy Social Skills

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At the park, at a playdate, at the first sleepover in years—I find myself hovering over my kids to see how they’re doing, help them negotiate social interactions if need be. Will they be able to make new friends? Will they know how to smooth over little squabbles? Will they be okay? We’ve tried to expose them as much as possible to the world around them, but the world around them has seemed…a mess at best and aflame at worst.

As challenging a time as this has been to be a parent, I try to remember how challenging this has been for our children. I can’t count the number of missed family dinners and vacations and quiet conversations with their wonderful, quirky, and loving and aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents. Our school-aged children may have missed out on years of normal social interaction with their friends and classmates. And teens have had to resort even more to online versus “in real life” interaction to stay connected with their friends. So it’s not just you—many parents have real concerns about how to help their children build healthy social skills, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic. As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I often get asked to help families find ways to help their children make up for lost time socially.

Some of these challenges will be addressed by getting our children back “into the swing of things” – attending school, participating in sports, traveling again to reconnect with family. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the role we have as parents to coach our children through normal and challenging social experiences. For example, what to do when your child is being bullied or is the one engaged in bullying another child? Evidence-based clinicians have found  that the most effective strategies are proactive, preventive approaches that help develop core social skills even before tough moments arise. Sometimes, it’s difficult to see “eye to eye” about who did what to whom, but we can all get on the same page about being kind and respectful to others, understanding where others are coming from, finding space to stick up for yourself, and making room for all different kinds of people and experiences. Let’s talk about some strategies to cultivate these healthy social skills in your kids.

How to cultivate:  Kindness and Respect

Children learn what is valued and demonstrated at home. In our home, we try to keep it relatively simple—we tell our kids we’re practicing kindness and respect. And those need to be practiced by everyone in the family: If I insist that my kids say “please” and “thank you,” but I don’t tend to do so with them or with my spouse, I send a mixed message. If we really want our children to value and demonstrate kindness and respect to their peers, family, and others, they have to see that behavior every day at home and in their worlds. Take a moment to assess ways you can build an environment of kindness and respect at home. You can build sharing gratitude into a family dinner routine. You can offer your children real choices (e.g. snack options, family game picks, movie night selections) throughout the day and respect their choices. 

It’s also important to recognize that we can’t assume children will know exactly what to say or what to do, either. If your child is regularly missing an opportunity for kindness or respect, ask yourself if there is a lesson they need you to help teach them. Ask them how it feels when someone does something nice for them. Teach them respectful ways to greet and say goodbye to others. Help them understand how and when something they say could hurt another’s feelings. And while limit-setting often has to happen in the moment, this kind of social teaching often works better with a little distance from what I call “the red zone.” When children are emotionally upset, it is challenging for them to think clearly or learn new skills. These are times to provide emotional support and save the teaching for when they can better learn from you. When one of my kids is upset about a difficult interaction with a friend and is already yelling or in tears, I’m going to have to wait until they’re calmer and can process what I’m saying to teach a social lesson. 

We also need to be careful to positively reinforce the specific behaviors we want to see more of. This means being aware of what your child is motivated by in your relationship. If they really respond to your attention, getting a lot of attention (even negative attention!) for disrespectful behavior can be counterproductive. In that case, you may want to quickly and calmly share your concern and that you will have to discuss the situation with them later, then move on. Come back to it when things are less heated. If your child is feeling jealous and struggling to regulate with tears or tantrums when you’re spending planned time with a sibling or your partner, calmly let them know that you won’t be able to engage with them when they’re struggling in this way; you’ll be happy to talk to them more about the situation later when they’re feeling more settled. You might gently direct them towards proven activities that help them regulate themselves, but otherwise may have to work hard to exercise “planned ignoring” to decrease the likelihood that the behavior will resurface again later. When you are able to engage them, most children respond strongly to specific praise. Move beyond a generic “Great job!” to “I really appreciate it when you help your little brother pick up like that without me asking. Thank you!” As parents, sometimes this feels a bit awkward. Try it out regularly for a week and assess how it’s going. You may have to adjust your words, tone, or frequency, but this is often a useful tool to build kindness and respect as their social foundation.

How to Cultivate: Empathy

Children begin to consider other’s experiences and needs gradually as they grow up. A toddler generally understands the world through a narrow lens of his or her own personal experiences. We’ve all experienced some version of this: Just as I’m getting dinner ready after work or juggling a challenging conference call with other home duties is exactly when a younger child needs my support or attention to get them a snack or to settle a sibling argument. As children get older, they begin to develop the ability to consider situations from alternate perspectives when prompted (generally around mid-elementary school) and eventually to more naturally understand another’s point-of-view (closer towards pre-teen years). We as adults can help with this transition by coaching them to consider others, what they might be experiencing, thinking, feeling. One concept that children often understand and can learn with practice and support is what many refer to as the old-school Golden Rule: treat others as you would want to be treated.

To practice this, you want to ask questions that will put your kid in someone else’s light-up sneakers—at an opportune time. Instead of asking them, “How would you feel if your sister did that to you?” just after they knock down said sister’s Magnatile tower, establish the consequence (e.g. apologizing and helping her build it back) and ask the question later during a quiet(er) time. Children’s natural defensiveness is often elevated in the moment, and more effective practice happens outside of these “red zone” situations. When you and/or your child observe negative or positive experiences happen to others, ask them, “What do you think that’s like for them? What do you think they’re feeling? Thinking?” 

Even if you’re not presented with an emotionally rich situation to observe, you can come up with common social scenarios for them to work through. “What would you do if someone were making fun of one of your classmates at school?” “How would you want someone to help you if tripped and fell in the hallway?” Children are still building their “social database,” and rehearsing these kinds of scenarios helps them to work out how they would want to respond and how they would want to be treated ahead of time. It can give them a “script” to navigate challenging social situations and help them develop a real curiosity for the lives and experiences of others.

How to Cultivate: Self-Advocacy 

While we want our children to understand others’ perspectives and experiences, we also want them to learn to advocate for themselves. While kids may feel comfortable sharing their wants, needs, and concerns at home (“Mom, I don’t like it when you sing that song!”), they often can struggle doing that at school, with friends, and elsewhere. Maybe they’re struggling with some classmates making a joke at their expense or one particular peer targeting them in a bullying pattern. We want our children to be able to recruit the support they need from peers and adults, but also to be able to stick up for themselves.  We can help our children build confidence in self-advocacy skills by encouraging them to practice putting their wants, needs, and concerns into words and expressing them directly to others. Let’s say they are struggling with a friend that always wants to play a favorite game in a particular way that your child is not enjoying. Maybe they share that they don’t want to play with this child anymore or want you to tell the other child (or child’s parent) their concerns. Instead, we want to help them practice expressing their wants clearly and directly. Often, kids need direct coaching in exactly which words to say and practice saying it a few times so they can get the hang of it. And then, check in with them later to see if they were able to follow through and troubleshoot if they weren’t.

Sometimes as parents, our good intentions short-circuit this practice when we anticipate our children’s needs and rush to resolve them before they express them directly. Or sometimes, the necessities of a family or public setting don’t allow us to accommodate our children’s requests, so we tell or show them that we don’t want to hear what they have to say. Helping them practice expressing themselves does not prevent us from addressing our children’s needs or require us to do exactly as they ask. In either situation, validating and praising them for calmly stating their perspective helps them learn to stick up for themselves. And when they practice with you, this can also be a wonderful opportunity to learn the age-old lesson that it’s not just what you say, it's how you say it! Teach them to communicate their needs in a way that allows others to hear them. If your child is playing with another child or struggling with some schoolwork, gets frustrated and yells, “Help me with this!”, try some planned ignoring here. If they are still struggling or have not encountered this social skill lesson much, help them to understand that we need to phrase that as, “Could you please help me with this?” or “I’d really like it if you could help me with this, please.” Help them understand the difference between a demanding tone and a respectful tone. If they’re not in the “red zone” just then, help them practice the words a few times. 

How to Cultivate: Engagement Over Avoidance

Developing and practicing social skills can be challenging or uninteresting at times for kids. It can be simpler to avoid a social interaction—or more fun to play on the tablet! One of our jobs as parents is not to let them fall into the avoidance rut too easily. Ultimately, we want them to be able to engage with the world around them! All different types of people and personalities and places. It’s okay to practice or work on social experiences they’re already relatively skilled at initially. This can help them gain confidence and understand that they can apply these skills in new and different situations. For example, if they are a little shy when meeting new kids, but usually warm up, encourage them to take the next steps and then positively reinforce their efforts. Next, you might try to encourage the same process with a new friend of the family or other adult in a new social setting, under your guidance and supervision. 

It’s also important to get them experience with things they’re not innately good at. Children need to have early experiences with the struggle of learning a new skill. We want to positively reinforce their effort more than the results. “I really love how hard you were trying to talk to that new girl on the playground!” (even if it didn’t quite work out!) When they experience the sequence of encountering a social challenge, getting support to navigate it, persisting with consistent effort in developing the skill, and then enjoying the success of real social connection, this can be a highly rewarding and motivating process that they can then begin to generalize to new social experiences. Ultimately, we want to help them understand social experiences as enjoyable learning opportunities. Messing up and being imperfect is just fine, as long as we’re growing and enjoying the experience.

How to Cultivate: Valuing and Promoting Diversity

Children (and many of us parents!) are creatures of habit. They tend to want to do what is comfortable, and familiar. It’s important to provide them with these experiences, as they can establish a positive emotional environment and build strategies to self-regulate in different domains of their lives. But especially in the context of helping them build their social skills, we also want to be mindful of helping them enjoy a diversity of people, places, and experiences. We want to help them view new experiences as positive opportunities to explore what’s interesting, what may be a fit for them, what might bring some new joy into their day. Similarly with people, we want to help them develop a curiosity about those who live different lives than theirs. This can start with role modeling at home. “Oh, interesting! I haven’t met someone from there before. I wonder what it was like growing up there?” Similarly to building other social skills, look for opportunities to provide specific positive praise if you witness them approaching a new person, place, or experience with a spirit of curiosity and positivity. 

My children are pretty chatty. When we’re all together and out in public, they’ll often be curious about others around us. When they ask questions, with a little bit of screening and shaping (“No, we don’t ask or comment about other people’s bodies…”), I like to try to find ways to encourage them to ask the other individual directly about his or her life and then find a way to praise them for this healthy social effort. Let’s say they see another child in a store wearing clothing from a culture we’re less familiar with. If my child asks me, “What’s that she’s wearing?” I’ll try to counter with something like, “Oh yea, that’s a really cool headscarf/yarmulke/ necklace! Why don’t you let them know you like it and ask them about it?” Sometimes it turns into a shared conversation with my child and me engaging the other family together. But with practice, I’ve seen my kid get curious, ask respectfully to learn more about another culture, and then start up an engaging conversation mostly solo! Afterwards, I praise them for their efforts in connecting with others and try to continue the curiosity - “What do you think holidays are like in their family?” “What kinds of food do you think they enjoy?” With a little luck and guidance from us as parents, our kids can learn that new social experiences can be really enjoyable learning opportunities.

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