Teaching kids social skills

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Sally thinks Dr. Donna is really swell, but she really needs social skills practice, natural feedback, and belonging from peers, not a 40 year old lady.

The scenario is common: Kid comes into therapy with attentional or developmental issues and a self esteem hanging by a couple threads (Thread one: class clown; Thread two: the attention he gets when he gets in trouble; Thread three: The approval he gets when he’s overly passive and gives his dessert to the popular kid at the lunch table)….

It becomes clear that impulse control issues, developmental delay, and/or general rigidity has made it difficult for the child to connect with other kids in a way that is well-received. The more negative feedback from peers, the more disillusioned, isolated, and hopeless the child feels. The minute hopelessness comes on the scene, the authority issues and the lack of trying and the self fulfilling prophesies of failure emerge. What began as a parental concern for academic decline or behavioral problems now becomes a mission to help instill a sense of social and emotional awareness, skill, and confidence.

If this sounds familiar to you as a parent, consider the following realistic tips:

  1. Social skills groups are great. Find them at therapy offices, after-school programs, the YMCA, etc. (Make google your friend.) Groups that actually teach and practice social-emotional skills in real life with real peers are probably even better than individual therapy for this type of kid.
  2. Check out groups on meetup.com for kids with similar interests and/or developmental levels. Have a couple kids over to play Minecraft or meet at a pizza restaurant to foster belonging and a sense of “other people are like me.”
  3. However. You don’t actually need a formal social skills group to teach your kid how to behave/not behave and foster confidence. If you create supervised social opportunities, you will no doubt catch him saying/doing something that is generally off-putting socially (or going off the rails emotionally). Then, away from his peers, take him aside and teach him in the same matter-of-fact voice you would use to teach him how to use the washing machine. If needed, cue the deep breaths or the short break or the calming push-ups or the grounding exercise. No shame or anger needed. (And be mindful that the icky rage you feel has more to do with your own unmanaged fear than with the child’s behavior.) With practice, these skills will eventually require fewer cues from you.
  4. Role play, but don’t tell him you’re role playing.  Talk about video games, ask for advice yourself, and put him in positions where he needs to be assertive or accommodating. Then explain to him how he is coming across to you. Casually model appropriate responses during everyday life without explaining that it’s “special skills lesson time.”
  5. Try social stories and games. Have neurotypical siblings and parents listen to the stories and play too. For older/higher functioning kids, have them help write the social story to depict sticky social situations either beforehand or to process after-the-fact.
  6. Offer scripts. Offer your child canned phrases to use during various social scenarios.
  7. Give your kid a sense of belonging and self pride by letting him choose a club or activity (if anxiety and/or kinestetic delay precludes him from joining the hockey team, what’s wrong with taking an online coding class?!).
  8. Give your child the benefit of the doubt. Instead of saying, “Why would you want to be so mean!?” or “That was so selfish to go on and on about Pokemon when no one else cares,”  be aware that they often don’t even KNOW they are coming across as “mean” or “selfish.” (Check point #3)
  9. Self-disclose. Explain your own social blunders and journey toward learning about how to be the charming mcCharmskins that you currently are. This will go a long way with preserving self eateem.
  10. Give positive feedback and maintain a “growth mentality.” (Notice and celebrate growth and learning, not just polished perfection.)

That’s all for now, says the therapist who sees way too many of these kids not to write a blog post on it, and also thinks genuinely enjoying a child instead of trying to change every little thing, goes a long way with self esteem…. Share if you think this would be helpful to anyone you know !

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