Critical Tools for Developing Social Skills in Children, Part 2: Specific Issues by Dr. Sandra Wartski
In the first part of this article, Dr. Wartski discusses the importance of developing social skills in children and demonstrates ways to incorporate the practice of this skill into day-to-day life.
In this section, Dr. Wartski provides insight into how to cope with three specific issues that impact a child's social skills.
Coping with a Less Communicative Child
If your child has difficulty communicating openly, for instance, start using the language more often and making connections between events and feelings. Not sharing enough information in a conversation can come off as disinterested, standoffish, bored or annoyed. Families might discuss the benefits of expressing ourselves to others and discuss how keeping feelings inside can lead to lots of misunderstandings. Boosting feelings vocabulary, practicing conversational start-up topics, and addressing methods of asking follow up questions could be helpful. Some of the positive, pro-social behaviors are not obvious to all kids—such as greeting people when we see them, congratulating others when they’ve accomplished something, showing interest in what the other person is saying, or trying to remember people’s names when we meet them. It’s also important to address body language. Some children aren’t aware of some of their facial and body language that sends negative messages, such as frequent scowling; gentle but direct coaching in this regard can be very helpful. Parents can also continue to be alert to role modeling the impact of body language, such as being sure to aim for matching of verbal and nonverbal communications (e.g., saying “I love you,” while smiling rather than the more confusing message of “I love you” while pounding one’s fist angrily on the table).
Coping with the More Boisterous, Bossy or Oblivious Child
Some children communicate often and loudly—but do so in a way which affects friendships negatively. For instance, some kids are prone to excessive use of put-downs of others (e.g., “You’re stupid” or “I’m sick of your game”). Some of the time this can be a child not knowing more appropriate ways to express a disagreement, other times it can relate to a child responding more harshly because they themselves are feeling insecure or threatened. No matter what the source, all children need skills in being constructive (e.g., “I was really hurt when you said that to me; can we talk about it?” or “We have played your game for a long time now. How about we switch to my choice of games after we finish this round?”). Sometimes these sorts of situations require more honing in of specific subsets of skills—such as helping a child who tends to be a screamer to practice ways of using a more neutral tone of voice or helping a child who tends to use sarcasm frequently to be coached in ways to more often say what is meant in specific, straightforward ways. It is not obvious to all children that others will sometimes talk about things we aren’t interested in and that we still need to be polite—we shouldn’t talk over them, interrupt, or abruptly end the conversation. Kids often need specific coaching to learn that we must all learn to show interest, so that when our turn comes around, people will show interest in us. Even if we want the conversation to keep going but are giving off the cues that we may not be interested (not making eye contact, giving only one or two word responses, or not asking follow up questions), the other person may think we aren’t interested and end the conversation. It’s also really important for parents to remain as consistent as possible in their role modeling. For example, if you tell your child to be mindful that her words have an impact on others' feelings but then you turn around and criticize your spouse or the waitress for some minor misstep, you're sending confusing messages. Don’t just talk about it, show your children the spirit of kindness and respect.
A related skill to positive communication is listening. Some children demonstrate poor listening skills—with both peers and adults—by doing things like looking away during a conversation, giving someone the silent treatment if they don’t agree with something being said, or crossing their arms defiantly. In this sort of situation, the type of skill development which could be helpful would involve teaching a child how to engage in active listening with good eye contact, leaning forward, and nodding. Letting others know you understood what they said by giving feedback or paraphrasing what they said is a related skill, as is finding ways to share opposing opinions in a calm, confident way. This may lead into other more advanced skills, such as helping a child who has trouble with flexibility to develop skills of adaptability.
Boisterous or oblivious children, especially younger ones, also sometimes have difficulty with interrupting others. Parents can work on training that is geared towards explaining to the child that the aim will be to let each person completely state his or her thoughts before stating yours. There can be some discussion about how interrupting comes across to others as very disruptive—“talking over” others may make them think you don’t value what they are saying, you are being self-centered or you know more than they do. There may also need to be focus on how talking for too long or providing too many details can be boring to the listener and if we continue, that person likely will not want to keep talking with us and may avoid us in the future. Parents can also assist in shaping this behavior by letting their child know they will not be responding to a non-emergency question or request if they are interrupted but will respond if the child uses “excuse me” and waits for the adult to respond. This type of training is often as hard on the adult as it is on the child but can be successful with patience and practice.
Helping a Child Who is Experiencing Social Rejection
As parents we want to be encouraging to our children and hate to see them hurt, but we also must prepare them for what they are likely to encounter in “the real world” by helping them to look at their own behavior—the only part we really are in control of anyway. You can help your child “process” events that have happened with peers and, in turn, build more positive social skills.
If your child is talking about feeling left out, help him or her determine if it was truly being left out or if there was another cause—such as them interrupting or trying to join a conversation that he or she should have stayed out of. Parents can help a child to brainstorm things that may have contributed to the situation—we may annoy someone, we may do something by accident (e.g., bump into someone), we may do something wrong (e.g., lie to a friend, not return something), we may laugh when the other person does not think the situation is funny, and so forth. Help your child figure out how he or she is coming across to others—this is perspective taking which can be a challenge for many children! Ask your child what they think of others’ behavior and what others may think of theirs, providing possible alternative explanations if necessary and non-judgmentally correcting for inaccuracies.
Knowing how to repair social situations is also important. There is importance in being genuine in our efforts to repair situations—a quick “sorry” is not the same as taking responsibility and apologizing. Kids can be helped to know that lying is not an effective problem solving strategy for dealing with social mishaps. When we tell the truth and take responsibility for it, the mistake becomes part of our past. Repairing social situations requires good perspective-taking skills and a fair amount of skill. Kids may also need coaching in not getting too caught up in what is the “truth” or who is most “right.” Preserving the friendship is what matters most (of course, as long as it is a friendship we value and is worth keeping).
Reinforcing positive friendship skills you see in action is also highly beneficial. Point out what your child is doing well. For example, you could say “I saw you smile and wave at Chris when you came out of school today—that’s a great way to be friendly!” or “I saw you handle that classmate being kind of bossy in a really kind but confident way. Great work!” In a related way, help children to be more self-aware and self-reinforcing, such as saying, “I’m so proud of you when you share so nicely with your brother. Are you proud of yourself too?”
In the third and final part of this article, Dr. Wartski provides information about seeking additional assistance for your child’s social development and how to stay optimistic about the progress.
Sandra Wartski, PsyD
Licensed Psychologist, Silber Psychological Services
Immediate Past President, North Carolina Psychological Association
Member, American Psychological Association
National Register Credentialed since 1995