Getting Real With Tonia Caselman, PhD, LCSW

Research tells us that children who have good social skills (i.e. are able to make and keep friends) do better in life. They are more successful professionally; they have more satisfying marriages; they have fewer mental health problems and they have higher self-esteem.

However, many children struggle with social skills. There are many different reasons for this, but parents can determine if social skills are problematic by their child’s complaints of having “no friends,” by the lack of invitations to birthday parties and playdates, or by excessive conflicts with peers.

What are social skills? Social skills are the abilities to manage one’s own feelings, read other people’s body language, initiate conversations & play activities, practice active listening, resolve conflicts, cooperate, show empathy, and be optimistic. If your child is not skilled in these areas, don’t despair. All children can learn social skills.

How can parents teach and support social skill development? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Playdates, playdates, playdates. Children need unstructured interaction with peers. If this is not happening naturally, arrange playdates yourself with the parents of your child’s classmates and peers. Without being too intrusive during the playdate, intervene if there seem to be problems. Limit the time of the playdate if necessary. Playdates are extremely important.
  2. Good host rules. Together with your child create a list of “rules” for being a good host. For example, “the guest gets to decide what to do” or “let the guest go first.” Post these as a reminder.
  3. Social autopsies. Following playdates, get with your child and analyze the time. What did your child do that made the playdate go well? What did your child do that may have been a problem? How could this be corrected in the future?
  4. Silent TV. Watch a show with the sound turned off. Discuss together what the thoughts and feelings of the characters were. Talk about what the “friendly” response would be to those thoughts and feelings.
  5. Problem-solving. Good problem-solving includes the ability to generate multiple solutions to a problem. Use time in the car or at the dinner table to present social problem scenarios and ask your child to come up with three (3) solutions. For example, “What could you do if you wanted to play the Wii and your friend wanted to go outside?”
  6. Bibliotherapy. There are many good children’s books about friendship. Check these out of the library, read them together and then talk about how your child can apply the lessons in the book to her/his real life.

If your child continues to have social problems after your best efforts, consider enrolling her/him in a social skills group at school or seeing a counselor.