Critical Tools for Developing Social Skills in Children, Part 1: An Overview

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We humans are social beings and, because of this, knowing how to build and maintain relationships with others is crucial. Our species would not have survived without creating relationships and groups that can function together. Having adequate social skills and good conversational skills allows us to be able to get along with others, form satisfactory relationships and be able to navigate through our complex, interdependent world.

Supporting interpersonal development in children is essential. More and more research is showing that social-emotional skills are at least as important as IQ for life success. Children with such skills are found to be happier, more confident, and more successful in school. Conversely, peer rejection or lack of positive peer interactions can impact negatively on children’s functioning at school, their moods, their attention to other life tasks and their general self-esteem. There is no doubt that social skills are critical in order to survive and thrive in our society.

Parents as Social Coaches

Parents can be effective emotional coaches for their children in many areas—and social skills are a critical area of influence. By taking an active role in your child’s interpersonal development, you can make a significant difference in their ability to get along in life. Having your own strengths in interpersonal skills can be helpful, but the only true requirements are your interest in working towards developing them. Just as you may teach your child how to effectively do a new chore or figure out how to do a new type of math problem, social skills can similarly be taught and coached. 

As is true with most any skill or habit we are trying to form, the earlier the better; however, children can be coached in social skills at any age. In fact, there are different skills needed at different developmental stages, and so opportunities to work on this are continually emerging throughout your child’s life. It is also really important to be realistic in your expectations, being sure to consider a child’s chronological and developmental age as you examine skills you are seeking. A 10 year old, for instance, would be expected to be much better at resisting interruption or figuring out how to express differing opinion about something than a 4 year old would be in those same situations.

Identifying and Building Needed Social Skills

In working with your child, the first step is to seek out a realistic assessment of your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Observe the child around his or her friends. When you watch them interact with others, are there certain situations and people with whom they really seem to shine? Are there situations wherein they really seem to struggle or have difficulty? Other caregivers in your child’s life might help to have you recognize areas of strengths and weaknesses as well. 

Once you have identified those areas you would like to target, choose one or two specific skills you think would be important to work on at a time. As with any new skills, breaking down the task into small goals will help to make the larger goal more manageable. Finding a way to regularly encourage social contacts and interactions is key, especially if this is something your family doesn’t do on a regular basis. Look for and create opportunities for your child to try out some skills, whether this be speaking up confidently to a waitress or practicing the act of sharing toys on a playdate. Problem solve before your child goes into social situation about expectations and rules; engaging in some role plays with your child ahead of time can also be a fun and effective way to practice skills. Prompt your child to engage in positive behaviors by reminding him or her what to expect and how to respond, coaching your child on the spot (in private) if he or she needs help. The younger your child is and the more difficulty he or she is having socially, the more frequent but shorter you will want to keep your practice opportunities.   

Aside from all the role play and directed practice, you and your child can also sometimes engage in some “people watching” activities (such as in a movie or at a store, when appropriate) and ask him or her what friendship skills are or aren’t being displayed. Helping children to be able to notice and draw out important friendship traits can also be useful, such as discussing—not lecturing about—examples of being kind, caring, thoughtful, friendly, fun, and so forth.

And, as is true for so many other parenting behaviors, what you do is more influential than what you say. Try to remember that you are role modeling to your children all the time. If they see you being kind to others, problem-solving calmly or taking a risk in developing a new friendship, for instance, they then will have a better idea of what this might look like for them—and to know this is possible. It is ok for a parent to tell their child, “This is a little scary for me but I am going to try it anyway because I know it is important to me” or “I knew I wanted to stay calm before I talked to my co-worker about this problem, so I paused to take a few deep breaths first.”   

In the second part of this article, Dr. Wartski provides insight into the specific issues of how to cope with a less communicative child, how to cope with a boisterous, bossy, or oblivious child, and how to help a child who is experiencing social rejection.


Sandra Wartski, PsyD

National Register Credentialed Since 1995
Sandra Wartski, Psy.D. completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Rochester and received her Doctorate in Psychology from Widener University.  After interning at Media Child Guidance Clinic and The Renfrew Center, Dr. Wartski moved to Raleigh and joined Silber Psychological Services in 1993. As a licensed psychologist in North Carolina, Dr. Wartski has been conducting individual, family and group therapy, as well as psychoeducational evaluations, with special interests in mood disorders, anxiety, eating disorders, relationship issues and crisis intervention. One of her favorite parts of being a therapist is the opportunity to build relationships allowing room for positive growth and change. Dr. Wartski also enjoys providing presentations and writing articles on a variety of mental health topics for both community groups and other professionals.