Critical Tools for Developing Social Skills in Children, Part 3: Seeking Help by Dr. Sandra Wartski
In the first part of this article, Dr. Wartski discusses the importance of developing social skills in children and examples of ways to incorporate the practice of this skill into day-to-day life.
In the second part of this article, Dr. Warski provides insight into 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.
Seeking Assistance if Problems Don’t Improve
There will be times when parents notice that their child continues to struggle significantly with social skills, despite lots of discussions, role modeling, practice and effort. This is not uncommon—and is nothing to be embarrassed about! Lots of kids—and adults—struggle with some of these skills that are neither always easy nor obvious. We all come into this world with certain temperaments and with different strengths and weaknesses, and it truly is strength to know about your “gap areas” so that you can seek additional resources or support as needed.
Many child psychologists provide social skills training for children, either individually or in a group format. The group format is sometimes called group therapy or social skills group, and it is designed for children or adolescents who have a variety of social, communication, and/or relationship problems. Not all psychologists or mental health professionals who work with children and adolescents have social skills groups, but this is an appropriate question to ask if you are thinking that this might be the type of service you are seeking for your child. Even if your child is working with someone who isn’t running a group, there are some skills that can be addressed individually; if it is eventually decided that a group format would be more beneficial, that professional would likely have a referral for someone else in the community who is running groups for children and teens.
The group format is a unique type of therapy which can have a tremendously positive impact for a variety of kids, including those who might be too shy, react impulsively, continually create conflicts, seem unaware of interpersonal cues, have few social skills, or simply find it hard to make or keep friends. One of the advantages of group treatment is that the format offers a ready-made social situation in which to learn new ways of relating to others, to receive role-modeling, to practice new communication skills, to get feedback from peers, to share problem-solving ideas, and to feel supported in a safe environment. Although social skills training groups differ in focus, most groups involve more direct skill training and practice activities. Many of the groups also use behavioral contracting as a way of measuring a child’s progress on goals and providing tangible rewards to motivate as they learn new habits.
The aim for such training would be for the children to eventually use their newly developed behavioral, communication, and relationship skills out in their home and school environments—and parents can help tremendously with this. By the time a child is ready to graduate from group, we would expect a child to be a more confident person who can better take the daily challenges of living and control of his or her actions and happiness.
Maintaining Optimism About Social Development
Using good social skills isn’t always easy. None of us is perfectly empathetic, pro-social and kind all the time, even as adults. To ask kids to put others first or even to be able to have the emotional energy to notice what someone else is feeling when they are upset is asking a lot. Fortunately, we can use children’s strengths as a bridge to building other skills. A child who is, for instance, really creative, exceptionally kind with animals or excellent in communicating with adults can be assisted in applying some of these skills in other situations which may be more difficult for them. In fact, using your child’s strengths in building areas of weakness tends to be more effective, more positively oriented and likely to be received by your child more openly.
The good news about social skills development is that it can be nurtured and developed. Directed skill building can feel very scripted at first, but it absolutely can allow for more successful interactions. The bad news is that it does not happen overnight. Interpersonal skills are quite complex and full of nuances, so keep in mind it takes lots of practice. Progress may be slow but generally accumulates over time as skills—and brains! —develop.
Sandra Wartski, PsyD
Licensed Psychologist, Silber Psychological Services
Immediate Past President, North Carolina Psychological Association
Member, American Psychological Association
National Register Credentialed since 1995