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Social Skills Continued

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

For this reason, parents and caregivers who want to offer children constructive criticism need to proceed cautiously and with finesse. It is best that they communicate empathy first before jumping in to offer potential solutions to the child's social problem. For instance, when Cheyenne comes home crying and upset and says, "Deandra got mad and told me she doesn't want to be my friend anymore. Girls just don't like me!", Mom could start by addressing the feelings at play, saying, "It's hard to have hurt feelings, isn't it?"

father and son togetherNext, Mom can work with Cheyenne to figure out what happened by saying things like "Did Deandra tell you why she doesn't want to be friends anymore?" After analyzing the situation, Mom can help Cheyenne figure out how she is contributing to the problem and help her to appreciate why that is a problem she should take seriously. For example, Deandra may be upset with Cheyenne because Cheyenne is "gossiping" or telling secrets about her to others. Cheyenne may know very well she is gossiping but simply not appreciate how hurtful this is to Deandra, because Cheyenne knows that she would not be upset if Deandra were to gossip about her in the same way. In other words, she may see the problem not as her own failure to adapt her behavior to conform to her friends needs, but rather as her friend's failure to act like a "normal" person. The issue may not be that Cheyenne isn't aware that gossiping is considered by many to be a bad thing; it may be more than it has never occurred to her that other people don't see the world the same way she does. Helping Cheyenne understand why gossiping is hurtful to other people will help her to understand the problem she is having with Deandra (e.g., that Deandra is sensitive to different things than Cheyenne is, and that if Cheyenne wants Deandra to remain her friend, she needs to respect those differences). Helping her then appreciate how she can act differently towards her friends in the future will help her repair the friendship, as well as grow her social insight and her repertoire of ways of relating to others. As Cheyenne matures to better appreciates the truly complex nature of the social landscape, she will naturally change her behavior to become more compassionate, and as a result, have a better friendship retention rate.

The best way for children to really learn social skills is to practice them repeatedly across different social situations. Parents should make sure that children have plenty of opportunities to interact with other kids in ways that are not too intimidating. It is helpful for parents to work with shy children to sort out less from more intimidating social issues, and to address them one at a time starting with those which are less intimidating and thus easier to master. Proceeding in this ranked or graded fashion helps shy children to progressively build on existing skills so that over time, they find they have the tools inside them to successfully tackle even formerly feared social situations.

Parents should make certain to give lots of positive praise to children who are trying to put social skills lessons into action. No one is perfect, and children will invariably make mistakes and social gaffes. However, being ridiculed or punished for being shy or awkward will only compound the problem by adding additional anxiety, self-focused consciousness and shame or embarrassment to children who are already struggling. Instead of rewarding only successful completion of the ultimate goal, parents should instead reward children's efforts, and their completion of partial or incremental goals. Like any difficult puzzle, multiple attempts and multiple dead ends may be required to be tolerated before eventual success can occur.

When children feel like they are valuable, loved, respected, and capable of making positive choices, they will be more able to stand up for themselves against messages from peers and media that promote self-destructive behavior. However, even the strongest children will struggle every once in a while over how to handle a given situation or conflict. If kids know that they can come to their parents at any time with any problem and find a supportive presence who will calmly help comfort them and help them problem-solve, they will likely use and benefit from this adult support.