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Social skills: why we need them and how they can be developed

Updated: May 19, 2022

by Jennie - Provisional psychologist

How do you know if someone wants to play with you and enjoys your company? Maybe they come up to you and tap you on the shoulder to get your attention; maybe they let you take turns in a game and share pieces with you; maybe they smile and nod to certain things you say; maybe they listen and ask questions when you talk about the things you like. These are all examples of social skills, and for many people, this is a second-nature process for indicating we want to be friends and play. For some, however, social skills may not be so easily understood and executed.

Social skills are essentially the tools we use every day to communicate and interact with people around us, including verbal communication (i.e., speech) and non-verbal communication (i.e., facial expressions, body language, and gestures).

Developing strong social skills is important in childhood because it sets up the foundation for later development and learning, where the effects can last well into adulthood. Knowing and understanding social situations as well as our role in such settings, being aware of explicit and implicit social rules, and making and maintaining positive relationships are all examples of having developed strong social skills.

Paving this foundation in childhood is crucial as social skills are linked to many aspects of life. For example, initiating and maintaining friendships, and therefore promoting group belonging has been found to decrease feelings of social isolation and negative effects of stress while increasing feelings of life satisfaction, happiness, self-esteem and overall wellbeing. Positive social skills also promote understanding another person's view point and the ability to empathise.

In cases where children have not developed strong social skills, they may display behaviour such as shouting to express their needs, throwing to show refusal, or pulling other people's hair to gain their attention. Furthermore, research has linked poor social skills with increased risk of poor academic performance, substance misuse, mental health problems and criminality in adolescence and adulthood.

Interestingly, research suggests that social skills are bidirectional - essentially, children learn how to interact with others through their current interactions and both parties are able to influence each other. To provide an example, a child's behaviour has the ability to influence parenting style because parents and children respond to each other's cues, and thus a child will then be influenced by that parenting style. It's like a big cycle of learning, responding and influencing. Research has linked supportive and sensitive parenting with positive social skills development across early childhood, and this could be due to a variety of things such as parents fostering self-regulation, modelling, encouraging and reinforcing positive social behaviours, and creating comfortable environments for their children to learn and experiment. This could also be extended to a child's relationship with their peers and educators.

So, we know that we (and everyone around us) have a significant impact on the development of social skills during childhood, what can we do to help the little legends along in their journey to social competency? Well, here are some suggestions below:

  • Play with your child! Yep, sounds simple, but taking the time and effort to get down on their level and play is a great way to improve things like joint attention, cooperation, turn taking and appropriate play with toys.

  • Follow their interests. When social situations are especially difficult and nerve wracking, being able to enjoy our own interests is much more fun than being forced to interact with what others find interesting. Here, building social skills is easier when surrounded by others who share the same interests. As children become more comfortable, you can stretch them a bit further.

  • Teach them to ask open-ended questions. Conversations are scary. Even I, as an adult, struggle to start or keep a conversation flowing. Being able to ask questions that don't require a simple "yes" or "no" answer can be a great asset when developing strong social skills because it helps us learn about others and form two-sided connections.

  • Encourage role play and pretend play. With adults, this is a great way for children to actively practice their social skills in a comfortable learning environment. With peers, it's an opportunity to learn now to be imaginative, cooperate with others, learn to be flexible, negotiate play, and practice self-regulation when things don't go their way.

  • Play games that reward attention and control. Games like "Simon Says" are awesome for helping a child practice their focus and attention, as well as their ability to follow directions and regulate their behaviour. If you can play group games like "What's the time Mr. Wolf" or "Red light, green light", that's even better! With others joining, children can also learn about turn taking and being flexible.

  • Learn about emotions and empathy. One way to do this is by reading stories with emotional content and having a discussion afterwards. Another strategy is to discuss different imaginary or real scenarios, asking questions that relate to how others feel and encouraging children to actively listen, contribute and remember.

  • Be a good role model. This one is pretty self explanatory. Behave in a way you want others to behave and treat others how you want to be treated.

Phew! That's a lot of information to swallow…yet that's only scratching the surface!

So, what have we learned so far? Well, social skills are super important and are related to outcomes in adolescence and adulthood. A lot of factors are at play when developing strong social skills, so it's okay if a child has some difficulty socialising because these are learned skills that can be developed over time. With that, understand your child's limits and be patient with them and yourself. There's no use pushing and rushing your child because that is not an optimum environment to learn, and there's no use stressing yourself out because it will influence how your child responds to you! Like all things, developing social skills takes time, so take all the time you need to learn and have fun with your little legend!

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