Promoting social smarts in our kids

Author: Emma Langham
Clinical Psychologist

We all want our children to be happy, confident and have the skills to navigate their friendships and social activities, now and into the future. We all know how tough life can be when relationships get trying, when you feel left out, somehow different or misunderstood. And that happens to every child some time, or at least to every child I’ve ever met!

Some children seemingly appear to develop relationship skills intuitively and effortlessly, establishing friends quickly and figuring out how to avoid or deal with conflict and disappointment like an old soul. But many children don’t develop these skills ‘automatically’, and need at least a little assistance to figure out how to deal with other people, and how to do it well.

Social challenges and disappointments are one of the main reasons children present for psychology support, due to the subsequent anxiety, social shyness, confusion, and impact on self-esteem. So every little bit of support along the way helps.

So how do we assist kids to explicitly learn social skills? And when do we teach them?! Especially if we’re not actually there standing by them when it happens, like at preschool.

For the most part, the answer is actually pretty simple. By using everyday moments, you can facilitate your child’s understanding of social situations and how to navigate both everyday typical scenarios, and more complex ones. And this goes for both the everyday moments you are there for, and those you aren’t.

The challenge is, that the part of your child’s brain that helps them to do this for themselves completely independently won’t be fully mature until their mid-twenties.

So the key is providing consistent opportunities for learning and reflection; not assuming that kids will work it out for themselves as an automatic process of maturing.

Face to face modelling – when you are together, by showing your child how you go about meeting, greeting, sustaining and ending interactions you are laying the foundation in your child’s mind about how these situations can be approached – from simple ones at shop counters to more meaningful interactions with friends and family. The impact of these moments of learning can be elevated exponentially by overting (saying out loud) what you plan to do; or have done by ‘reviewing’ and reflecting upon the details of social interactions some time later (in the car after, that night, even the next day).

Caution – this isn’t about wearing yourself out by filling every possible moment with ‘lessons’; it is about being present with your child and providing a narrative to what they are already observing; and making an effort to help them make sense of the social elements they might otherwise miss or not appreciate.

For instance, “I was a bit nervous about going to kindergym today as I didn’t know any of those other parents, so it made me feel a bit better when the dad in the blue shirt said hello and showed us where to put our bags’… and ‘the boy in the stripey shirt was friendly to you when he smiled and said hello at the trampoline, do you think?’. ‘I could tell he thought you were friendly by the way he smiled ’; ‘I wonder if he will be there next week…what do you think you might do if you see him?’. Providing options to facilitate understanding and planning goes a long way! (ie you could wave, say hello, smile).

Encouraging authorship – understanding the social situations your child may have in your absence is not easy. Trying to imagine the situation from your child’s perspective through their own ‘mind’s eye’ from what you hear from them directly, or are communicated to by your child’s teachers at the end of the day, all build a picture of the important interactions that have occurred for your child.

So after a day rich of learning and social experiences at Go Kindy, your child may mention on some key things from the day – usually the experiences with the highest ‘emotional value’ get told first; ie those that are associated with excitement, intrigue, worry or surprise. Bath time and bed time are often the moments children choose to ‘dump’ their emotional experience of the day. So if your child initiates reporting an event, this can be a moment full of opportunity to help your youngster to reflect upon and then deconstruct and understand that moment. Even though it’s a nice way to touch base in the car or walking home to ask “how was your day at Go Kindy, sweetheart?” we shouldn’t expect a meaningful answer rich with detail. The trip home from school is usually when kids are wanting a snack, drink, try to negotiate what they can do when they get home, or drift off into ‘lah lah land’ for a while. All of which is perfectly natural and healthy; basic needs usually trump interesting conversation. After a day of being apart, children and relationships need time to ‘just be’. We all need to reconnect first, investigate later 😉

So when your child says that their best buddy threw sand in their face, or didn’t want to play with them, the best thing you can do is to allow them to tell their story. If needed, offer gentle prompts to help understand the situation from your child’s perspective. That is key – this is not a fact finding mission. It is an opportunity for your child to paint a picture of what happened, for you to be able to comment about ‘how hard that must have been for you to be left out of the game’, and after affording them the option of playing it over and over, re-telling details and displaying their feelings, to then talk about what ideas they might have so that both he and their friend tomorrow ‘get what they need’. This plan will likely include chatting to their teacher upon arrival to let the teacher know your child may have a situation that might need support (‘we had a sad night after Billy was not included in the sandpit yesterday, and he thought he might invite Andrew to ride bikes today instead’).

Just listening to and affording a discussion with your child, however brief, helps set your child up better for tomorrow and for future interactions.

What you are effectively achieving in doing this, is helping your child’s growing brain to become better integrated – assisting the parts of the brain function more like an integrated whole. Amazing! And you don’t even need a degree in neuroscience.

Brain integration helps children thrive emotionally, intellectually and socially. An integrated brain results in better decision making, better control of body and emotions, fuller self-understanding, stronger relationships and success at school. Just by talking through situations and creating narratives to understand what has happened, and create options of what might happen next. But of course, this isn’t the only way.

Stay tuned to learn more about your child’s developing brain, and how to “create thriving through caregiving”.

‘The Whole Brain Child’ (2012) by D.J. Siegel and T. Payne Bryson was referenced for this article

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