10 Ways To Teach Your Child Social Skills & Ease Party Anxiety

Author and child care expert By Caroline Maguire, M.Ed.
Author and child care expert
Caroline Maguire, M.Ed., is an author of Why Will No One Play with Me?: The Play Better Plan to Help Children of All Ages Make Friends and Thrive and child care expert who primarily works with ADHD children and families.
10 Tips to Help Ease Kids Holiday Party Anxiety

Image by mbg Creative x monkeybusinessimages / iStock

During past holiday seasons, you may have watched your teenager ignore other people at a family event, their nose glued to their phone. You may have watched your child become too rough with their cousins or use a sharp tone with their great aunt. This year, rather than thinking of the holidays as an inevitable catastrophe, try to think about how things can change. The holidays are a perfect time to practice your child's social skills, so they can learn how to communicate and play well with others. 

Wherever you go over the holiday season—from trips to shopping malls to holiday parties—you have a chance to be your child's social skills coach. Use the holiday grind to your advantage!

1. Help your child become a social spy.

Build your child's awareness by teaching your child to be a social spy. This way, your child can go into public with a mission to be a social spy, where they'll obtain specific social information.

You can rehearse with your child ahead of time, so they learn to watch other people in a subtle, covert way and to listen without looking like they're listening. The idea is to observe a specific behavior so they can learn crucial information about peers, such as how they dress or what they talk about at lunch. This exercise also teaches them how to observe and notice other people's behavior, mood, and energy, as well as to scan and read the room.  

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2. Spy at a party to identify the unspoken rules.

In every environment there are unspoken rules, the subtle and nuanced rules of how you are expected to behave and what is acceptable in that environment. During the holidays, as you take your child to different environments, practice having them enter each event to covertly spy and uncover the unspoken rules of the household.

You can start by promoting them and sharing your observations, then have them spy and report back. Have them notice: Is the house casual or formal? How do the members of the family treat the furniture?​ Are they tidy or messy; do they care about organizing? What is important to them?​ Should you touch items in the house or keep your hands to yourself?

3. Take a shopping field trip.

Take a field trip with your child to a public place like a mall or a large shopping plaza and spy on shoppers and workers in the stores​. Have your child spy to notice social verbal and nonverbal cues and to collect information.​ 

Notice all the entrances, exits, and bathrooms. Draw a map of them. How many are there? Do employees wear uniforms? What do the uniforms tell you about who is doing what job? Based on what you observe, who is in charge in this store? Who is in charge but does not wear a manager tag? Who is the grumpy employee? What verbal and nonverbal cues tell you how someone feels? Who is in a hurry? What social cues tell you they are in a hurry? 

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4. Read the mood at a holiday party.

At an event with friends and family, prompt your child to pick out two people in the family to observe and report back on their facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Have them notice whether these individuals are angry, frustrated, nervous, or frightened. Continue to spy on people's moods throughout the holiday season and ask your child how they should adapt their behavior based on the other person's mood. 

5. Create an inventory of people at the party.

Determining who someone is and predicting what they will do comes from stepping into their shoes and noticing minute details about that person. Help your child learn to predict what motivates people and how they will react to information by playing this game at a holiday party. 

Before the party, prompt your child to privately collect information to create an inventory of two specific people in your life by spying on them and gathering information, answering questions about their interests, personality, and preferences. 

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6. Teach your child to engage in a "polite pretend."

The ability to fake interest or happiness and to be polite even when your child is hungry, tired, or bored is what I call a polite pretend. Begin by asking them some open-ended questions: What do you think your friend felt about your behavior? How do other people feel about how you treated them? What behavior does the situation call for? This will help your child think about their actions and why performing a polite pretend may be necessary rather than hurting other people's feelings. 

7. Practice making small talk.

Taking a conversation from "hello" to a full-fledged discussion is hard for some children and teens, but it's a life skill. Before a holiday party, teach your child these steps so they can consider how to start and move a conversation forward.

First, consider how the person and situation is similar or different from someone else they know; consider what shared experiences they have had with the person. Then listen for clues about the person they are talking to or consult their social database for information about them that they can use in conversation.

Give your child some conversation starters such as, What have you been up to? What has this season been like? Are you taking a trip or vacation this season? Ask your child to walk around with you and start to make conversation with adults or other kids. 

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8. Reading the face in the crowd.

Most communication is through body language and facial expressions. At your next social event, ask your child to read the faces of people at the party from afar, reminding them to spy covertly without glaring or staring. Ask them to share with you discretely what five people's facial expressions are and how they think that person is feeling. 

9. Teach your child to approach a group.

Prior to a holiday party, role-play approaching a group with your immediate family, so your child can get a sense of how to physically maneuver and practice how to join a group.

First, pause and scan the group, figuring out the group's unspoken rules. They should think about who they know, considering what the people in the group are interested in, notice the social cues, body language, and facial expressions of the people in the group. They should then make eye contact with the group and initiate a friendly gesture like a smile while approaching the group. 

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10. Gamify reading the context of a situation.

Context is the situation, the environment, the mood, the circumstances, and what is going on around you. Some children struggle to pick up on the context of a situation and to adapt their behavior to that context.

At a social event, ask your child to adapt their behavior to match the audience he is speaking to. Share some examples in advance: Did they just get bad news? Are they hurried and busy? Are they sharing good news? Ask your child to demonstrate adapting to the context and then sharing it with you.

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