For parents, few moments are more painful than watching their children struggle to make friends. A child’s social skills can set the stage for happiness and acceptance. It’s important to remember, though, that social skills can be taught and practiced. If you’re one of those parents wondering how to help a child with social skills, take heart. Parents can learn how to develop social skills in their children. Even the shyest child can learn how to interact and make the social connections that open doors to friendships and opportunities.
Understanding Your Child’s Social Development
The social skills that children need and develop change as they grow up. Each phase of childhood offers new challenges in social development and new opportunities to grow socially and emotionally.
Elementary school: In their preschool years, children learn to share, take turns and say, “I’m sorry,” “please” and “thank you.” As they grow up, they learn to make conversation, give and receive compliments, read facial expressions and body language, listen well, acknowledge the feelings of others and express their emotions appropriately.
Middle school: In the tween and early teen years, your child wants to fit in. Children who feel insecure about themselves can be especially susceptible to peer pressure. Plus, their bodies are changing and emotions are raging, piling additional challenges on daily interactions with peers and adults.
High school: This is the time when your child looks toward life after graduation. They might dream of going to college, training in a trade, entering the workforce or joining the military. No matter their dreams, they will have to get along with others. In anticipation of that adventure, high schoolers should be learning to communicate effectively, collaborate, respect the opinions and space of others, and advocate for themselves.
The Importance of Developing Social Skills
Not every child is born with a seemingly inherent facility for making friends and fitting into any social situation. However, children can learn to develop meaningful bonds with others and navigate the social demands to achieve their dreams and goals. Good social skills offer a range of benefits that promote your child’s success.
- Academic and career achievement: A study from Penn State and Duke University found that kindergartners who excelled at sharing, listening, cooperating and following the rules were four times more likely to complete college and more likely to be employed full time by age 25.
- Improved mental health: Children with strong social skills make friends more easily, leading to a healthier state of mind. They are less likely to feel isolated or depressed.
- Fewer risky behaviors: A full toolkit of social and emotional skills helps children avoid substance abuse and toxic relationships.
- Less stress: Children with strong social skills and the ability to express their emotions are better equipped to deal with the stresses of daily life.
- Building sportsmanship: Even children who aren’t athletes should learn how to win with grace and lose with dignity. Social skills introduce children to the intricacies of interacting, setting and abiding by rules, and working with others to achieve shared goals.
How to Help Your Child Improve Their Social Skills
Improving kids’ social skills is a matter of practice, diligence and attention to the cues they’re sending. There are plenty of options for the parent who asks, “How can I help my child with social skills?”
- Understand their interests: People of all ages pursue hobbies and activities because they want to do the things that interest them. Interacting with people who share the same passions comes with the territory. If your child is passionate about robots, there’s probably a robotics club to join. The athletic child can join a team. The artist can take classes at a local museum. The key is staying attuned to the things that attract your child’s attention. Naturally, it’s important to learn to get along with people with different backgrounds and interests, but finding like-minded peers is a great way to develop your child’s social skills.
- Help them learn empathy: Learning to understand the feelings of others is a key factor in building healthy relationships and lasting connections. Try role-playing different scenarios, asking your child how other people might feel about good or bad things happening to them. Stress the importance of listening as a tool for understanding what the other person is feeling and experiencing. When you’re watching TV or videos together, ask your child how the characters might feel about what’s happening to them.
- Teach your child to read nonverbal signals: Much of what we communicate is expressed nonverbally, and children need to learn to read the signs. Try turning down the volume on a kid-friendly TV show and asking your child what the characters might be expressing. Or have them make collages from photos they cut out of magazines, and encourage them to talk about what the people might be saying or feeling.
- Teach them to ask questions: Conversation is hard. Silence is awkward. Constant frustration in making headway with people just makes kids feel discouraged about even trying. Teach your child to take control through asking questions that show an interest in the other person — especially questions that don’t allow a yes-or-no answer.
- Practice with them: When you think about it, things like striking up a conversation, getting someone’s attention or joining an existing group can be hard. For children who struggle to break the ice, practice is helpful. Take advantage of dinnertime or car moments to role-play with your child. Create made-up scenarios, or even ask your child to pretend to be a person they have trouble getting along with. Then switch roles, with you pretending to be that person. Watch your child interact and offer suggestions for getting along.
- Give them a safe environment to practice: Create a pretend scenario of a social situation, and encourage your child to think of ways to join — without the fear of failure. With enough practice in a safe setting, your child can feel confident about participating when a similar situation occurs in real life.
- Take advantage of play dates: Play dates offer safe settings where children can practice social skills, such as taking turns and being polite, in real life. When your child is the host, come up with three activities to offer the guest at first, and then have the kids take turns picking the next activity. In the process, kids are learning their manners and how to compromise.
- Encourage eye contact: Eye contact builds trust. It makes us appear more intelligent and sincere. When we make eye contact, people tend to believe what we say. On the other hand, too much eye contact can make people uncomfortable. What’s a child to do? Teach your child to become comfortable with eye contact with games like staring contests, telling a story while looking into your eyes or talking to their toys.
- Explain personal space: Children don’t always realize the importance of giving others enough personal space to feel comfortable. Practice ways that children can interact and play without intruding.
- Teach self-regulation: Does your child know how to recognize and respond appropriately to emotions? Overreaction to anger, fear and even joy can be disruptive in social situations and leave your child out in the cold.
- Know when to stop: The process from cocoon to butterfly takes time, and every child is different. Your child might never be the one who makes friends and starts conversations with ease. Encourage your child to grow, but understand their limits and don’t push them toward something that will never happen. Help them cultivate their talents, so they find their place, build relationships and feel fulfilled in whatever they do.
- Be a good role model: Your child is watching. Are you truly empathetic to the feelings of others? Are you a good listener? Do you ask questions in conversation and show genuine interest in other people? When children see you navigate social situations, they absorb those lessons and put them into play in real life.
Healthy social skills are crucial to your child’s personal and academic success. CCA offers a diverse menu of fun field trips and family get-togethers where children can make friends and practice their social skills. Plus, CCA clubs offer opportunities to learn, grow and have fun with kids who share the same interests. CCA is the only cyber charter school in Pennsylvania with fully equipped mobile classrooms, where our students enrich their academics even as they practice socialization. It’s all part of the flexible, fully supported CCA experience. Learn more about CCA’s socialization opportunities, and contact us for information on flexible education customized to your child’s needs.