For kids, having friends doesn’t only make life fun, it’s an important factor in shaping the life they will lead.
According to a study from Penn State University, children with better social skills were more likely to be employed and have graduated college. Over the 20-year period of the study, the kids with better social skills were more likely to have better life outcomes. Those with less developed social skills were more likely to have been arrested and more likely to experience difficult life situations.
As a parent, you want the best for your child. Social skills like learning how to work with others, cooperate, share and find a place in society are a critical part of growing up. For current youth struggling to cope with the COVID-19 crisis, it can be difficult to develop social skills between stay-at-home orders and a pandemic creeping outside the door.
Learning has to go on, and we can’t put growing up on hold like we can a trip to the movies or a sports season.
There are things you can do for kids as a parent, guardian or caretaker to enhance and nurture social skills, even when social distancing and enforcing safe behavior in these difficult times.
Keep in mind, how you approach these ideas may shift depending on the needs and age of the child. You wouldn’t approach a 4-year-old the same way you would a teenager. That said, the basic lessons and ideas can be applied to all of us, no matter our age or the age of the child.
Here are seven great ideas you can start using today.
For kids, conversations can be difficult. Talking can make them nervous. Asking questions is the best way to bring a child into a conversation and can be the basis of a learning experience for you and the child. Use questions to learn more about the child. Along the way, you can learn something and help them make connections that can last a lifetime.
Family dinners are a great time to ask questions. Make sure to ask questions that are personal to the child, and not general or too open-ended. Be open to the answers they give. This is also a great way for the child to learn how to ask appropriate questions.
No matter the child, there will be some things they are interested in that you couldn’t care less for. Video games, for example, or a YouTube or Tik Tok personality, are interests a son or daughter may have that baffle a parent. Put aside your feelings and try to learn more about what interests them.
Talking about things they are truly interested in, and letting them express themselves with like-minded people, is one thing many kids are missing during these difficult times. Filling that gap for the child can help them learn about expressing themselves. It’s also a great way for you to learn new things.
Take a moment and think about how you act around the child. Many of us are frustrated or scared right now, and it can be difficult to bottle that up. Sometimes, without even meaning it, we can express those feelings in inappropriate ways.
Take a breath and make sure you are being a good role model. Are you really listening to the person? Are you showing genuine interest, or are you making the conversation all about you? Are you being kind and understanding, showing genuine empathy, or are you letting negative emotions take control? Kids really do learn from our actions.
We’re all different. Not every child will be socially outgoing and excited to talk, and not every child will be introverted and shy. You need to understand the child and know how to make them comfortable. Some kids will be comfortable meeting with and talking in a small group, and some may be just as happy in front of a crowd.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t push them. We all need to learn the appropriate way to interact in a group, and how to be polite when we ask for help in a store. Every child needs a little push but understand their limits. Find what makes them comfortable, smaller settings or easy steps, for example, and tailor your instruction and guidance to them.
Especially when stuck at home for extended periods of time, it’s easy to fall into bad habits. Many of us may stop saying “please” and “thank you,” for example. Spending lots of time on the computer without talking is another potential bad habit. This can lead to regression and forgotten social skills.
Even at home when social distancing, you can work on social skills. Schedule dinner and turn off all electronics. Spend time talking using a set discussion or topic for the night. Encourage engagement with everyone, including the kids. Make sure the family knows they are welcome to also talk about what interests them, ask any questions they have, and discuss what they have on their mind.
The little things matter when it comes to social skills. Start with eye contact. Making eye contact in a conversation lets the other person know we are listening to them and helps the listener pick up important non-verbal communication during the conversation. Let the child know how important eye contact is.
Empathy is another social skill that needs nurturing. For younger kids, quiz them on the different emotions using flash cards or even facial expressions. Have them imitate the emotions so they can learn the signs for identifying them. For older kids, just asking questions can help. Discussing how someone feels or talking about feelings helps them tune into emotions.
When kids are by themselves, or stuck with siblings alone, it can be easy to get in bad habits when it comes to sharing and cooperating. As a parent or caretaker, it’s important to make sharing a priority. Set clear boundaries and expectations before problems set in. Let them know that everyone gets a turn and point out good sharing behavior.
Cooperating can be a little more difficult when social situations are few and far between, but it is just as critical for work and business settings as it is for friendship and in the family. When it comes to home and family projects, have the kids set common goals with you, and then divide the work up. Rather than letting it devolve into a fight over who can do the easiest job, let teams work on the difficult jobs and an individual tackle the easiest.
With so much struggle in the world today, working on sharing or learning how to make eye contact when we have a conversation can seem silly.
Social skills are a critical success factor for kids as they become adults. As parents, we can help make up for the experiences and opportunities that have been lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we look to the future and identify safe activities, consider team sports or activities that incorporate social skills.
Keep in mind, kids learn at different speeds. Some children just take a little longer to learn a new skill or may need a little more maturity to understand the importance of these lessons.
If you have further concerns about your child, you may want to talk to your pediatrician. Sometimes, struggling with social skills may be a sign of another problem the doctor can help with.