10 Ways To Teach Kids Social Skills When They Can't Socialize & Go To School

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.
Boy Video Chatting with His Friend on a Laptop

Image by Addictive Creatives / Stocksy

School closed early, and now summer camps are either closed or threatening to close. Home-schooling is one thing, but how can parents help their children and teenagers develop and maintain social skills in a social crisis?  

Don't despair; there are opportunities, even in these times, to help children learn social skills at home (that don't require much from you; parental burnout is real!). Children of all ages learn social skills through play. Unstructured, imaginative play, such as making mud pies for younger kids or creating videos and writing songs for teens, builds skills that help children self-manage, self-advocate, and cope with disappointment and complex emotions. 

How to teach your kid social skills during social distancing.

Parents can promote social learning within the family by having fun. (Yes, good old-fashioned F-U-N.) Pick one specific goal for each child, and be sure they know what the intended behavior looks like. For example, help your daughter work on negotiating compromises with her siblings by gamifying the process: Create a contest of building points for each interaction that works toward the goal, and decide as a family what the "winner" and the whole family can earn. What you focus on grows!

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1. Allow your child or teen to play and get messy.

Allow your child to build a massive block structure in the living room for days. (Yes, "days" plural.) Often it is Day 2 or 3 that brings out true creativity. Let your tween tie-dye his shirt—and bring out the markers! Encourage your kids to share their art socially, maybe even compete with friends online for the best design.

2. Teach telling a tight story.

Now is a great time to help your child recognize the need to tell stories that engage while also learning to read social cues. Some children monopolize conversations by telling long drawn-out monologues. To help him alter his approach, self-regulate his emotions. and get to the point, play Tell a Tight Story. Pick a topic, or allow him to pick the topic, then model introducing and delivering a short, concise story. Next, ask him to do the same. Ask him who he is telling the story to and why the person needs this information. Perhaps call a relative and ask them to listen to his story. Have a contest where everyone tries to keep the story tight and the "winner" gets something cool. This skill will help your child make a favorable impression and engage in reciprocal conversations. 

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3. Teach empathy as a part of daily life and family culture.

Teaching empathy involves bringing a gift to your community and also guiding him toward a greater understanding of what kindness and empathetic behavior looks like. Model and reinforce empathy with—as best as possible—all actions and messages. (No one expects you to be perfect on that; don't worry.)

During sibling squabbles, when children make unkind comments, point out the hot emotions. When tempers have cooled, draw attention and talk to him about the importance of recognizing others' emotional experience. Don't preach; rather help him to step into the shoes of his peer by asking reflective questions. How do you think Alex feels? Why did he react that way? What did his facial expressions tell you about his feelings? Collaboratively and quickly talk to him when his behavior is rude or lacks empathy. Ask him to interpret how his behavior made you feel, How do you think I felt when you corrected me? What were your intentions?

4. Teach your child to spy!

Build on her social observing skills by helping her to spy, for a good reason! The plan is that your daughter enters a public place with the mission of going on a social skills scavenger hunt to look for people who talk too close, are rude, or speak too loudly. The idea is to observe a specific behavior. Have your child think through these scenarios, pause, and then pay attention to their specific set of behaviors.  

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5. Detect voice tones.

Explain that words, tone, body language, and facial expressions can change the interpretation of messages. Your voice and your tone can change the meaning of what you are trying to say. You might want to praise someone by saying, I can't believe you did that! But with the wrong tone, it may come across condescending. Ask her to self-reflect: What did I say, and what was my tone? Help her recognize that this is an important skill that builds over time. Parents, the more adept you are, the more willing kids are to listen to you on how this plays into the bigger picture.

6. Read social cues and body language.

Body language conveys a lot about the person and their intentions. Teach her to have an open and welcoming stance when greeting someone. No one wants to engage with someone standing with his arms crossed, yawning.

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7. Teach good listening skills.

No one can argue that good listening skills are critical for every part of life. Read a story and ask him to give you details. Make a picture, describe the details verbally, and ask him to draw a picture sight unseen using only the information she heard. At dinner, make eye contact, physically turn her body toward the speaker, and have her wait for her turn to join in the conversations. If the speaker notices that you already formed a response, they surmise that you are not listening and therefore not interested. Sit back and let the other person talk. Be present. Allow him to ask of other family members, Please share your highs and lows for the day. Prompt your child by asking, What questions or comments can you ask this person? 

8. Teach flexibility and adaptability.

Does your child assume the role of Rule Police—correcting others, checking and exposing "facts," and failing to meet people halfway? To discuss what flexible behavior looks like, ask your child, What rules can be compromised and which ones (safety) can't? Encourage siblings, friends, and other adults to share when rule enforcement had ruined an experience for them. When she tries to enforce the rules, ask her if she is trying to enforce a guideline or a rule. Guide her to allow you and others the ability to choose games, board game piece colors, what they want to play, and where. Ask her, Who made the majority of choices? What does it feel like to hold back or to allow a friend to make choices? Ask her to allow you to change the rules just once. Ask, How did that feel?

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9. Promote reaching out.

Relationships require action and attention. Reaching out is a skill—from asking someone to play to texting to hang out to asking a professor to meet on the weekend to networking—all these self-advocacy skills are critical to a life well led.  

10. Cope with emotion and worry.

Everyone has disappointment, and at times we experience intense emotions. But raging during video games, pointing fingers, melting down, and collapsing when things don't go your way produces conflict and discord. As an experiment, gather small and large toys that represent emotions and explain that it doesn't matter how big reactions are; it matters how much we feel them. Ask him, How big of a truck or car would it take to carry your worry?

The bottom line.

Parenting in a pandemic is hard, super-hard, but if you can move away from school work and toward life skills, you and your family will make it out better than before. 

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