Humans are wired for social connection. This is especially true for our kids when they start school. Developmentally, most kids become less egocentric and start paying attention to what other peers do, think or feel as early as ages five to six. You may start to hear statements like: “Jessie said that no one likes dinosaurs anymore so I don’t like dinosaurs anymore,” “I’m sad because Ali said I’m rude and she doesn’t want to play with me anymore,” “Mo has ‘Air Jordan’ shoes so I want to have those shoes too.” These statements can be frustrating because it may seem that your child’s peers have a bigger impact on their thoughts and decisions than you do! Just know that this is very developmentally appropriate and that this level of social awareness is a significant milestone in the development of social skills.
What are social skills? These are the skills your child uses to determine how to behave, talk and play when around other peers and adults. This includes the ability to have and maintain conversations, understand others’ thoughts and feelings and to know how to behave within certain contexts and places.
So what’s the difference between good and poor social skills? Let’s imagine you’re watching your child play at the playground with their peers. Your child’s friend Leah does a good job starting conversations and knows what to say to keep them going. She lets others have a turn to talk without interrupting and thinks about what she says before she says it. She is able to show others that she is actively listening. She nods along, smiles, asks questions and makes appropriate comments. She’s polite and always uses her manners. She seems to know when to joke around and be silly and when it’s time to be quiet and focused. She is always paying attention to others’ social cues to consider how they might be thinking and feeling (social cues include body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and body proximity). She notices if someone is uncomfortable or upset and is able to think and respond in ways that help resolve conflict. She’s also really good at expressing her needs, wants, and emotions appropriately. Leah seems to have a consistent peer group that she plays with.
Now, you notice your child’s friend Gabe. He is constantly interrupting other kids while they are in the middle of a game. He seems distracted and will sometimes walk away from conversations without warning unless his peers are following his plan. He is often impulsive. He doesn’t intentionally want to hurt others with his actions or words, but he will sometimes blurt things out that can be hurtful or grab stuff without permission. He forgets to use his manners. He has difficulty reading social cues and understanding contexts. For example, he will often make a joke while others are trying to focus or will shout over his mom while she’s on the phone. He also has big, emotional reactions to conflict. His friendships don’t last long and he will often complain about not having any friends.
When you think of your child, are their social skills closer to Leah’s or Gabe’s? Maybe they are somewhere in between. If you’re noticing that your child’s social skills need some work, several factors may be at play. Children will often have less developed social skills simply due to lack of exposure to peer groups their age. Some would say that a pandemic and virtual schooling for a few years created an interruption in the development of social skills. Parents or caregivers can struggle with social skills too. As a child’s most important role model in the early years, your behavior directly impacts your child’s behavior. Finally, our neurodivergent kiddos (for example, those who are diagnosed with ADHD or autism) often struggle with reading social cues and impulsivity so may need some extra practice and understanding.
Here are some tips to help build your child’s social skills. If you struggle with implementing social skills too, this is a great opportunity to practice and build your skills alongside your child:
Model and practice conversations with your child. You are your child’s greatest teacher. Don’t forget to model and practice conversations with them daily. You can take turns picking a topic of interest and observe whether they are able to look your way, listen actively, ask questions, make appropriate comments and even tell related stories.
Point out and acknowledge good social skills. You can do this when watching TV shows, movies, or in natural settings every day. (“I really like the way Bluey stopped to think about how her friend would feel first before saying that out loud.” “I like how Sarah let Aiden take a turn talking about the weekend too.”) Of course, if you notice good social skills from your child, ensure you acknowledge this as well!
Practice reflecting about what other people could be thinking and feeling. This is especially helpful during conflict. Instead of jumping towards solutions, have your child express what they were thinking and feeling when the conflict happened, followed by what the other party involved could have been thinking and feeling.
Practice impulse control. This is the ability to stop and think before one acts. Use delayed gratification challenges (“Let’s see if you can wait three minutes before opening your treat”), turn-taking games, and games like Freeze Tag, and Red Light, Green Light to help build your child’s impulse control.
Seek support if you need it! If you feel that your child is lagging in their social skills development, don’t be afraid to seek support. There are often structured social skills groups happening in your community. Children’s Link is a great resource for this (childrenslink.ca). You can also consult with a psychologist on how to support your child in building social skills.
We hope the above tips help your child feel more confident when interacting with peers and those around them!
Joanna and Lara (Registered Psychologist and Child Mental Health Advocate) started Psyched About Kids (PAK) in 2016 because they are obsessed with human potential! PAK empowers parents with science-backed knowledge, strategies and tools to solve our most pressing parenting issues today and make life a little easier, along with ongoing support to implement the desired change. Small actions over time can have an unimaginable impact on child growth and development for lifelong health and wellness. Learn more at psychedaboutkids.com.
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