Does Your Kid Need Help During Playtime? 7 Must-Learn Lessons
You have to take the long view with kids and socialization: It may feel like all you can do is focus on the challenges of one child, one day at a time. It's understandable; you have your hands full. However, I'm not concerned solely about whether our children survive the day without suffering social bruises or inflicting them. When we look at children and examine their executive function social skills development, we need the end goal in mind. Our goal is that years from now these skills (that they've learned when they're young and growing) will have carried them through to make the most of their potential in their personal lives, their work, and their own sense of belonging in the world.
An example: The mother of a brilliant 10-year-old boy was deeply worried because her son, Neil, had what she considered a serious attitude problem about school and making friends there. It showed up as disruptive behavior during class that distracted other children and required the teacher's attention. His grades suffered, too, not because he didn't know the material but because he blew off assignments when he felt like it. Meanwhile, he had developed a negative attitude about school and homework, and he insisted that his lack of friends wasn't important; he said he didn't need them. That was his story.
Neil's parents were most frustrated about his grades—he had to have high grades to get into the school's more advanced-level classes, so he was shooting himself in the foot with his behavior. His parents constantly appealed to teachers to give him a break, arguing that he was so far ahead of the other kids academically that he just couldn't relate to them. Then one day his mother read a Forbes magazine article that interviewed experts about the most important "people skills" everyone needs to succeed in the workplace. She looked down the list and she realized: "My son cannot do this." Seeing the description of these basic social skills and how the lack of them ultimately holds people back in their adult lives and careers jarred her out of rationalizing any longer about her son's situation. As advanced as Neil might be in some subject areas, he was way behind the curve in these basic but essential social skills. A glimpse of the long view helped her focus on the concrete goal of helping Neil develop the people skills he'd need to take his great potential into the real world and, at the very least, hold down a job and function in his adult life in 10 years' time.
Whatever your child's story, our job as parents is to prepare our children to survive and thrive in life. Social skill problems travel with children into adolescence, when they predictably worsen, and then into adulthood, where the lack of people skills not only isolates them socially but also keeps them from getting or switching jobs, pursuing dreams, or speaking to their boss or obtaining promotions. Now is the time to start. Like tying their shoes or learning to read, eventually they'll forget what it took to learn it—the skills become second nature.
Behaviors everyone needs to be successful:
1. Manage emotions rather than let them manage you.
2. Read the room.
What's the prevailing vibe or emotional tone of those present? Is there an activity or conversation underway? Is it structured, with expectations about your role and how to participate? Or is it less structured, allowing for a more casual and spontaneous way for you to join in? What do you need to do to adjust your energy level, tone, or expectations to match the setting? What would others expect of you in this setting?
3. Meet people halfway.
This could mean introducing yourself, starting a conversation, or answering a question when you're asked. Even just a smile and friendly acknowledgment can be enough to signal to another person that you're sociable and open for business. Sometimes halfway means physically stepping forward to be social rather than hanging back on the edges or just staying home.
4. Understand social cues and unspoken rules, and be ready to change your behavior in response to them.
This involves reading people's facial expressions and body language and being aware of your own. Verbal cues might seem easier, but they require that you pay attention to what others are saying, which can be challenging if you routinely tune out others and prefer to stay tuned in to your own thoughts.
5. Learn to walk in someone else's shoes, or see things through their eyes.
To understand someone else's perspective means to understand, to some degree, their motives and reactions. This includes their reactions to you. You need to understand that every behavior and every action you take makes an impression on other people, and they operate and react to you with those thoughts in mind.
6. Be flexible and adaptive.
Don't be the Rule Police. Accept that you are not always right. Understand that part of your social role is to compromise, and recognize that at times it's appropriate to place friendship or the larger group ahead of being right. Don't be argumentative. This includes knowing when to drop the debate and accept no for an answer.
7. Know your audience, and adapt your communication to be appropriate.
For a 5-year-old this means filtering what is public and private information and learning not to insult teachers and friends by saying thoughtless things that hurt feelings or ruffle feathers, like "Your dress makes you look fat," or "My mom says you are lazy." A 10-year-old needs to be able to anticipate or predict what friends want to hear about, what they find interesting, and what they would like to talk about. You may also need to adapt your tone, stories, and other information you choose to share, depending on the age and interests of those around you.
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