Q: I hear a lot about how important it is for children to develop social skills. What exactly are social skills, and how do children learn them?
There are a lot of different definitions of social skills, but I think of them as the abilities necessary to get along with others and to create and maintain satisfying relationships.
The exuberant, extraverted style of interacting that tends to be valued highly in American society is not necessarily the best or the only way to relate to others. A quieter style of relating can also be very healthy. Social skills are about being able to flexibly adjust our behavior to fit a particular situation and our personal needs and desires.
3 Processes Underlying Social Skills
There are three main processes that children (and adults) use to navigate the social world: Seeing, Thinking, and Doing.
Seeing in a social situation involves picking up on social cues. It means noticing the context: Is the setting casual or formal? Are these other kids close friends, acquaintances, or strangers? Different situations call for different kinds of behavior.
Social seeing also means noticing other children’s behavior. If a child feels lost regarding how to act in a new situation, answering the question, “What is everyone else doing?” may provide some hints about what to do. (Obviously, I’m not advocating lemming-like following of the crowd—good judgment is always necessary.)
Monitoring others’ reactions can also help children change course if things aren’t going well. For instance, noticing, “She seems bored with this game” could prompt a child to suggest a new game or to ask the friend what she would like to do.
Children who have trouble with social seeing often unwittingly annoy others. They may do things that are inappropriate for the context, such as being silly when everyone else is being serious. Worse, they may persist in doing annoying or upsetting things because they overlook the signs that others want them to stop (e.g., glaring at them, avoiding eye contact, moving away).
Thinking in social settings involves interpreting other children’s behavior to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Are they being playful or aggressive? Was it deliberate or accidental? It also means being able to predict others’ likely responses and to come up with effective strategies for influencing peers in desired ways.
Research on social cognition tells us that children who struggle socially often misinterpret others’ intentions. For instance, aggressive children are more likely than other children to view a peer’s behavior as stemming from deliberate meanness. They’re also less able to come up with constructive strategies for resolving social difficulties.
Doing in a social context means interacting with peers in positive ways. Some children know what they ought to do, but have trouble actually doing it. For instance, they may want to join a conversation, but they feel anxious and freeze up, so they say nothing. Other children tend to act impulsively, blurting out inappropriate comments.
Helping Children Learn Social Skills
Some kids seem to learn social skills very easily, but others can benefit from some extra coaching. Almost every child struggles with friendship issues at some time in some way—whether it’s trying to find a buddy in a new school, handling teasing, or having an argument with a friend. These kinds of experiences are very common, but they can also be very painful.
Considering the three processes underlying social skills—seeing, thinking, and doing—can help you understand where your child might be stuck and suggest ways to help your child move forward. For instance, during a playdate or a trip to the playground, you might be able to help your child see more effectively by making observations that draw your child’s attention to relevant cues (e.g., “Carlos seems frustrated right now.” “Priya and Abigail are taking turns on the slide.”).
If your child is struggling to figure out how to respond to a social dilemma, you might be able to support your child’s social thinking by providing insights to explain the other child’s behavior. You could also help your child brainstorm possible responses and evaluate their likely outcomes.
Finally, you might be able to create opportunities for your child to practice “doing” social skills by role-playing tricky situations, planning strategies ahead of time for tough situations, or arranging appropriate activities.
For instance, children who find it hard to make eye contact may find it easier to “look at people between the eyebrows.” This comes across the same as eye contact but may feel less threatening for children.
Rehearsing simple responses to common questions can also help anxious children get past deer-in-the-headlight moments. “How was your weekend?” / “Good. I had a soccer game.” “How’s school?” / “Good. We’re learning about the Mayans in Social Studies.” These exchanges don’t qualify as witty banter, but they’re a good way to handle predictable questions.
Kids often make friends by doing things together, so an interest-related club, class, or team might be helpful. One-on-one playdates often feel more manageable than group activities for children who are on the shy side. Some children who struggle socially with their age-mates do better with children who are a few years younger or older than they are.
Continually experiencing social failure doesn’t help children learn. Children who struggle with friendship issues need guidance and support so they can “get it right” socially by seeing, thinking, and doing in ways that help them connect with their peers. Getting lots of practice having positive interactions with other kids enables children to feel genuinely comfortable, competent, and confident in social situations.
Do you think it’s harder for children to learn social skills nowadays? Why or why not?
For further reading:
Buhrmester, D., Furman, W., Wittenberg, M. T., & Reis, H. T. (1988). Five domains of interpersonal competence in peer relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 991-1008.
Crick, N. R., & Dodge, K. A. (1994). A review and reformulation of social information-processing mechanisms in children’s social adjustment. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 74-101.
McDowell, D. J. & Parke, R. D. (2009). Parental correlates of children’s peer relations: An empirical test of a tripartite model. Developmental Psychology, 45, 224-235.