Q: My school aged child is having trouble making friends. How can I help him improve his social skills?
A: As the world of play and social interaction is natural for children, it can be concerning when a child struggles in communicating with his peers. Childhood play provides the breeding ground for the development of social skills, including cooperation, negotiation, and problem solving. Well adjusted, pro- social children share traits such as strong verbal skills, empathy, perspective taking, and emotional self control. Social efficacy impacts a child’s self esteem and identity and is a critical aspect of their sense of industry in the world. Parents can assist struggling children in developing personal regulatory and interpersonal skills through both the home and social domains to boost their self confidence and relational abilities.
As much of your child’s social modeling comes from his home, your positive social behavior will impact your child’s social learning. Interactions with your own friends, as well as the manner in which you speak to your child, model communication skills that your child carries over onto the playground. Playing with your child can help prepare him for playing with friends- in addition to being fun!- and role playing social situations can help him get a head start in building skills and confidence. Children can often be coached to observe a social situation before jumping in, considering the various ways in which they can respond that would be most effective. Your own observations of your child’s social strengths and difficulties, and information from teachers and other adults in your child’s life, will help guide you in understanding the nature of his troubles and responding accordingly.
Is your child struggling with self control? Emotion coaching- teaching kids to label and express emotions, with a validating response from a parent- has been proven to assist children with self regulation in social environments. Is your child struggling with conversational skills? Training kids in active listening- including providing verbal and non verbal responses, allowing the conversation to go two ways, and offering information about themselves- can help children learn how to create and maintain conversations with peers. Children also often benefit from fine tuning their ability to read facial expressions, assisting them in formulating responses.
Parents are also influential in the social sphere, and setting up your child for positive outcomes will motivate your child for social success. This can be accomplished by creating short play dates with a single peer in whom your child expresses interest. Planning is critical for success, and activities offered should include socialization options that minimize competitiveness or the likelihood of fighting between the children. Parents can be involved in facilitating the activity to allow for support and modeling, but should allow the child to handle most of the interaction as he practices his social skills. To ensure that their child feels comfortable in his peer group, parents can build similarities between the child and his peers by educating their child in the latest fads or games. This creates commonalities that can be a basis for conversation, as well as assists a child in feeling confident that he “fits in.”
As your child develops his skills slowly, provide periodic praise and reinforcement. Your child has his own unique way of relating to others and should not be compared to siblings or friends to whom social skills may come more naturally. However, as you observe your child to gain a greater understanding of how to be helpful to his particular social needs, pay attention to red flags such as inability to make eye contact, extreme anxiety in, or avoidance of social situations. If you worry that your child’s social difficulty may be more complex than just “being shy,” seek professional help to rule out or treat social- communication disorders, social anxiety, or bullying.
Faigy Parchi, LMSW
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