Encouraging Social Skills in Young Children

We encourage our children’s social skills by putting them in social situations. They can get a sense of the social world by attending family events and spending time with people of different ages and at stages of life. Grandparents can play a vital role in encouraging social skills as they often have the time and attention that young children need, and they can support parenting discipline in a gentle but effective way.

Social behavior is often learned around the dining table when children see adults and young people talking and interacting over a meal. We can teach our children to have a ready smile and good eye contact with people they meet. We can give them confidence to speak up and out when adults engage them in conversation.

Children also need other children to develop their social skills. Inviting a friend back to the house can be a huge learning curve for your child. They have to learn to accommodate a guest in their own environment and to share their toys and space. Now that children do not play out so much in the street environment due to fears for their safety because of traffic and stranger danger, it has increasingly become the role of parents to provide opportunities when they can mix with groups of children outside school.

This can be at extra activities such as gymnastics or dance, or through belonging to a sports club. We can also take them to parks and sports fields to run around and meet other youngsters.

Often, there will be rows and fallouts when children are playing together. This is a normal part of growing up as young people learn to interact, negotiate and co-operate. Children learn that if they try to be too bossy and controlling, people won’t want to play with them. Equally, they learn that getting angry or frustrated because the game is not going their way will mean the game usually ends in disaster.

Children learn that there are consequences to their behavior in social situations. They learn that in order to get on with other people we have to make ourselves agreeable, and sometimes modify our behavior.

As parents, we can encourage our children’s social confidence through our love and attitude towards them. If a child feels good about themselves, who they are and what they can achieve, then they are able to take the risks necessary to reach out to others and to communicate in a way which solidifies and builds relationships. Children who have poor self-worth can have difficulties managing their social behavior, and can distrust others, therefore finding it difficult to make friendships or sustain relationships.

We can help our children to feel good about themselves through first of all appreciating them for who they are rather than having unreal expectations about how we would like them to be. Often, we carry our own baggage into the parenting process and seek either to fulfil our own ambitions or longings through our children or to have expectations that our children will never be able to achieve in a certain area because we were not able to as children either.

Try not to force a square-shaped child into a round-shaped hole. Even within families, we can easily label children ‘the sporty one’, ‘the clever one’ etc. However, each of us is more a mosaic of different gifts and talents that make us up to be the unique person we are. Let your children grow in their own unique way and support that process as a supporter on the sidelines of the playing field rather than as a coach directing the game.

We need to recognise and respect our children’s feelings and to give them an opportunity to express them, even if they are sometimes not what we want to hear. The most important aspects of social interaction include a level of emotional literacy. That is an ability to communicate our feelings and emotions to other people in a way in which they can understand. If we don’t listen to our children, we will not give them the opportunity to develop this emotional literacy.

We also need to express our own feelings to our children taking responsibility for them by using the words ‘I feel’ rather than ‘you make me feel’. This models good emotional interaction for our children, and thus we all take responsibility for our own feelings and reactions to life rather than blaming others for making us angry.

Children sometimes do not have the necessary vocabulary to identify the name behind their feeling. They may not know the word ‘jealousy’ or be able to name the confusion of rage and temper as anger. We can help by making suggestions to our children such as ‘it sounds like you are feeling very angry with Dan’. When children’s feelings are acknowledged and accepted, and when they are not told that they are wrong to feel them, then they can learn to exercise the necessary self-control to contain them.

If our children are to be successful in a social context, they have to learn the parameters of that social context. It is OK to feel angry, but not to hit people because you are angry. It is OK to want to play the game your way, but if no one else wants to play it that way, you may have to compromise. It is OK to feel disappointed, but not OK to throw things around because you are disappointed.

Our children will need help when social situations get out of hand or when they are rejected, angry or sad. The world is not a perfect place and other human beings can let us down and cause us pain. We can be there to support our children through these times by allowing them to express their feelings, and through giving them strategies to deal with people who have upset them or hurt them.

Children’s friendships can be very up and down. There can be bullying, unkindness, bossiness, manipulation and rejection. However, children can also show extreme generosity, forgiveness, kindness and friendship – all in the same hour or day!

This is all part of the process of growing up and learning to adapt to the social world. As parents, we can help our children’s sense of self-worth to remain intact by continuing to love our children unconditionally and by being there, talking about it, and giving them practical strategies that our own experience has shown to work.