Developing Social Skills in Children

developing social skills in children
developing social skills in children

Every parent wants to raise a child confident enough to handle themself in any social situation. A socially confident child knows when to ask questions and when to listen. When to act and when to hold back. How to act and how not to. Unfortunately, as important as social skills are for children, they don’t always come naturally. And there are very few things as frustrating as watching your child struggle to make friends or fit in because they find it difficult to interact and communicate with their peers. Thankfully, confidence and social skills can be developed in children with practice.

There are many building blocks necessary for the development of confidence and social skills. Dr. Caroline Junge, Assistant Professor at the Department of Developmental Psychology, University of Amsterdam, described the building blocks for developing social skills. She came up with a comprehensive and daunting list of response evaluation and selection, emotional regulation, thought and beliefs about relationships, imitation, language, emotion labels, self-esteem, perspective-taking, empathy, verbal and nonverbal communicative behaviors. This list is not a tick sheet but rather to show how complex it can be. I doubt many of us were taught to be ‘social,’ but we have learned through life. If parents are to grasp how to teach children social skills effectively, we need that if our child is struggling with it, it could be due to lack of understanding. Children also live far fewer social lives now. Many of us had far more interactions with different people when we were young. Children have less structured time now to ‘play on the street’ but instead play with a few select friends online.

Why Is It Important To Develop Social Skills in Children?

Your child requires social skills to communicate and interact with people and the world around them every day. Interaction and communication can be grouped into verbal and nonverbal. Speech is the main example of verbal communication, while nonverbal examples include body language, tone of voice, gestures, and facial expressions. As the building blocks above suggest, it takes more than verbal and nonverbal communication for your child to become socially competent. However, a socially intelligent child understands both implied and written rules of interaction in social situations and therefore knows how to behave. In return, they find life easier and are happier. Social skills are fundamental in networking and career development.

Dr. Junge’s research further underlines why you should learn how to teach your child social skills. Children with strong social skills easily develop good relationships with others as they grow into adulthood. As adults, the research found that they generally have better health and live longer. They are more resilient to mental health issues and function better in society. What’s more, they are more likely to do better at school and in their career. In contrast, children who lack confidence and social skills struggle with feelings of loneliness, school maladjustment, mental and behavioral problems, and interaction with their peers.

5 Social Skills To Teach Children

Having established the importance of teaching your child social skills, below are some essential skills you should teach your child.

  • Working with others in a group. Some children might know how to navigate a social situation with another individual but struggle in a group. Knowing how to work with others in a group is particularly important in a classroom setting. It contributes to your child’s intellectual ability, and by extension, their academic success. You can start to teach your child how to work in a group by helping them learn to wait their turn in a family meeting, making suggestions, and respecting other people’s opinions. Voluntary work is an excellent way for children to work with groups outside their immediate peers.
  • Expressing and regulating their emotions. Your child needs to know how to put a name to what they’re feeling and regulate their emotions for an appropriate response. It isn’t uncommon to see teenagers and adults who lose control when they’re upset because they don’t know how to regulate their emotions. This can sometimes lead to a situation where they cannot assert themself because of their state of mind. Some children struggle with emotions so this might be how you support them.
  • Manners. A child who’s been taught manners understands how to behave in social settings without being told. Good manners are a marker of respect and consideration. They show that your child is taking how their actions might affect others in a social situation. For example, well-mannered adults know not to answer their cell phones inside a library or a place of worship. Being polite with words and greetings are also mannerisms to impart. We look at how to teach manners here.
  • Empathy and sharing. Teaching your child empathy and sharing will prepare them for relationships in the future. Empathy extends to so many areas of life. It enables one to see things from another person’s perspective, which is crucial for conflict resolution. An empathetic person will strive to lift others when they’re down, not laugh at their pain.
  • Interpreting nonverbal cues. A lot of communication happens outside of speech. Sometimes nonverbal cues can help one decode what another person isn’t putting into words. It could be through another person’s facial expression, gestures, tone of voice, or body language. Spot-on interpretation leads to a better understanding of others and how they’re feeling, which then informs a more appropriate response.

How to Develop Social Skills in Children Early

Children pick up a lot of social skills from observation. Parents, caregivers, and teachers need to model social skills for children to learn. Social responses like smiling, pointing, vocalization, and imitation of facial expressions begin in your child’s first year of life. “One-year-olds will predominantly point and vocalize to express their intentions,” says Maria Kalpidou, a professor of psychology at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. “It’s important to interact with your toddler by acknowledging what he’s looking at and pointing out other cool things around him.”

Consequently, this shows that the development of social skills can begin in infancy. Below are age-appropriate ways to develop social skills in your child:

  • Age is not a barrier here. This is where your baby interacts with their parents. Attachment and parental responsiveness are prime examples of those attributes. At this stage, your child can respond to social stimulants. They can regulate their behavior toward environmental objects, situations, and people through your affective displays. They first start to learn eye contact and tone of voice. All that play and time together is very beneficial so don’t feel that it is more important to do the washing.
  • At this point, your child’s social interaction is becoming a bit complex and varied. They are beginning to develop basic perspective-taking skills, understand helping and sharing, cooperation and fairness. To help your child communicate and put words to their emotions, you can repeat their phrases back to them in the correct way when they get it wrong. You can also encourage your child to point to something that’s disturbing him or her. Another way of helping your toddler socialize is by initiating parallel play. Although it sounds complicated, it means playing with other toddlers in an unstructured way. Not structured classes but just playing with and around other children in the park or on the carpet. By observing other, perhaps older children, they start to solve their own problems. They learn to read body queues and see what behavior is acceptable to others.
  • As a preschooler, your child will follow simple directions and work with other groups of children. To develop your child’s social skills, you could organize play dates where they will get to play with others, take turns, and share stuff. You could also give your child simple tasks like cleaning and tidying. And establish rules like making sure they put their toy away after playing.

Importantly, modeling appropriate social behaviors and playing board games can teach your child how to be polite and wait their turn. All of this helps prepare your child for the social setting they’ll encounter in preschool.

How to Improve Social Skills in a Child

When your child is older, it is not unusual to identify areas of social interaction where he or she is lacking even though you did your best to develop their social skills early. Signs that your child requires some social guidance include:

  • The inability to win or lose gracefully.
  • Insisting on having their way all the time.
  • Being isolated by other children due to frequently annoying and teasing them.
  • Poor conversation-making.
  • The frequent use of a high tone of voice.
  • Frequently victimized by other children.

So how do you tackle a specific social skill you’ve noticed your child isn’t particularly good at? Below are four strategies on how to help a child with social skills.

  • Point out. As a parent, the first thing you should do when you notice your child is struggling with a particular social skill is to point it out privately. They might not be aware. This could lead to difficult conversations where you have to tell them things that hurt them. Rather than tell them that they can’t do it, discuss how other people might approach the same situation. Maybe while watching TV shows and movies. It is about taking advantage of teachable moments to point out when others are using that social skill your child struggles with. It could be a character in a book or on a show, another adult, or even a child. Without making comparisons, it’s an opportunity for your child to see another person modeling appropriate social behavior.
  • Practice. Then practice some simple role play as they understand the skills involved. Or talk through situations that they are struggling with on the way into school. Remember that scaffolding is the best way. Social skills take a long time to develop, so make it several small steps.
  • Praise. After practice, your child will start to try things out in real situations. Praising the child when you notice them doing this will serve as a motivator. You could verbally compliment them by saying, “At the playground today, you didn’t lash out. You did a great job of expressing yourself.”
  • Prompt. You may have practiced and pointed it out repeatedly, but it takes time for a new skill to become a habit. Prompting is the act of reminding your child to use the new skill they have acquired when a real-life situation presents itself. However, you have to be cautious not to nag your child or become overbearing.

Final Thoughts on Developing Social Skills in Children

Parents and caregivers play a huge part in the development of their child’s social skills. The most effective way of teaching social skills is to model them. They pick things up from the way you navigate social situations. Being generally polite in your interactions with others, saying “thank you” and “please” will most likely result in a child who does the same thing. But patience is required because learning social skills is an ongoing process. Some things might need frequent corrections and repetition.

It may be tempting to think that playing computer games are detrimental to developing social skills. However recent research from Oxford University suggests that this might not be the case.