Social skills are an important part of your child’s development, and lay the foundations for confidence and assertiveness. Clinical psychologist and play therapist Dr Jó-Marié Bothma explains how to help your child bloom.
Children who have well developed social skills can communicate clearly, calmly, and politely. They find it possible to share with others, they are helpful towards their peers (and even towards adults in their immediate environment), and they can wait their turn. They show consideration towards the feelings and interests of their peers. They take responsibility for their actions, can practise self-control, and are able to assert themselves when needed. Social development allows for children to contribute in positive ways towards their families, their schools and the communities they live in.
Social skills are important
Social development forms the foundation of a child’s sense of belonging and her experience of acceptance. As children develop socially, they respond to the inﬂuences around them. Using social skills are the path to creating and shaping relationships – first within their immediate family, and later within the community. Through their relationships with others and their growing awareness of social expectations, children build a sense of who they are and of the social roles available to them. These skills are needed for deepening social experiences, and they lessen the chance for negative interactions.
Social skills give young children the building blocks for early friendships and the chance to learn from their peers. This sets her up to be considerate with those they meet in the future. Children gain a sense of confidence and mastery over their environment when they experience positive social interactions and life experiences.
Bring your tot out of her cocoon
Children are not born with social skills. This kind of learning is passed on to children directly by those who care for and teach them, as well as indirectly through social relationships within the family or with friends, and through children’s participation in the culture around them. It is the combination of both healthy development and learning that nurtures these skills. In short, children learn social skills through experiences and instructions from their parents, their interaction with their peers, and time with adults.
All children, just like adults, have different temperaments. Some children tend to gravitate naturally towards healthy social interactions, while it may take others more time to do so. Social skills can develop in a very natural way if parents aim to provide a safe and loving home environment, while maintaining consistent boundaries. The good news is that even if your child struggles with social skills, there are many tools parents can use in order to facilitate social development:
Be a role model
Children are good observers and tend to copy what they see. It is a classic example of “monkey sees,monkey does” – children copy what their parents and others do, not what they say. Use this as an opportunity to teach your child. Demonstrate turn taking during playtime by saying, “First mommy’s turn and then your turn.” You can also incorporate this into everyday activities such as hair brushing, building puzzles, eating, etc. Set an example by thanking your husband when he offers you a hand with the groceries and model the correct way of asking for help. Make good eye-contact when you talk to your child and refrain from interrupting her when she is talking. Thank her when she does something good to others (like sharing with their little brother).
Using books and stories
Children can learn about different feelings through stories. Books can increase a child’s vocabulary, and this can also help them verbalise their needs better. Children learn about basic manners and possible ways of interacting in different situations by reading. Non-verbal signs of a story characters’ moods and feelings can be discussed and mimicked in a role playing exercise. Children just love acting out their bedtime stories!
Have playdates and go on outings
When your child interacts with others in a social setting, and with you there to supervises he learns how to initiate and continue a conversation with others, as well as ways of positively resolving conflict with their friends. Parents can demonstrate negotiation and compromising skills during playdates, while helping their children become aware of the personal space of others.
Provide a loving home where there is room for mistakes and where each family member respects each other’s differences and their uniqueness
There is no better way to learn socially than in your own home, where laughing and playing takes place on a daily basis. It is only when children feel safe and secure that they have the courage to explore the world and other relationships around them. Accept and acknowledge each and every person in the family. This also helps to instil positive self-image and self-confidence.
Routine, discipline and consistent boundaries within a loving home naturally expand into healthy social and emotional development.
Children learn what is socially acceptable behaviour as a result of healthy discipline, when they know where the boundaries stretch and they learn self-control.
When to be concerned
When a child has difficulties with social skills you may notice a difficulty in taking turns and sharing, as well as getting very upset when losing a game. The child might not be aware of others and fails to read the feelings of other people based on their verbal and non-verbal cues. There might be some issues with expressing themselves and regulating their emotions. Making and maintaining friendships could be compromised as a result. Sometimes children who lack in social skills prefer to play on their own, will battle to maintain a topic of conversation, or will not understand consequences of their actions. It is, however, important to take note that some or a combination of the above could also indicate many other possible developmental concerns. If you notice any of these in your child, it’s best to contact a play therapist or psychologist to assess and assist your child, or refer her to another expert where necessary.