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Seven Steps to Improve Your Child's Social Skills
A Family Guide
By Kristy S. Hagar, Sam Goldstein, Robert Brooks, Richard A. DiMatteo
Specialty Press, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Kristy S. Hagar, PhD, Sam Goldstein, PhD, and Robert Brooks, PhD
All rights reserved.
Understand the Social Mindset and Its Significance
Humans are social beings. For our first few years of life we are completely dependent on others to care for and nurture us. When we are alone, most of us long for the company of others. As the saying goes, no man is an island, and none of us can do without a social mindset. Very broadly defined, a social mindset consists of a unique set of thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions we routinely use in our daily interactions with other human beings. This mindset is what guides children's decisions as they speak on the telephone, beg Mom and Dad to have a sleepover, excitedly await going to school to see friends, wait in line on the playground, and behave politely when receiving a not-so-great present from a family member. Although our social mindsets are largely shaped during childhood, they continue to change throughout our lives.
Our social mindset is composed of our thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions. Thoughts reflect our internal dialogue, a running commentary within our heads about the interactions we have with others. These thoughts can foster positive or negative feelings. For example, if you think about how nice it was that you were invited to a party, you will probably experience a good feeling. Negative thoughts, such as anxiety and anger (which have been the focus of some of our other Seven Steps books), often foster negative feelings. When we think that we are dumb, bad, or incapable, we often feel bad.
Negative thoughts and feelings often lead to erroneous assumptions about others' motives and personalities. That is, if we interpret the innocent behavior of another individual as purposeful, we assume negative motives for their behavior, which leads us to assume negative attributes about them; for example, He must have stepped on my foot on purpose — therefore he is not a very nice person. Or, He must have chosen to not call me rather than forgotten, so he doesn't care very much about other people. Challenging negative thoughts, feelings, and assumptions is one of the many tools we will explore in developing a social mindset.
It is just a small step from thoughts and feelings to actions. Clearly, positive thoughts foster good feelings and set the stage for positive actions, while negative thoughts do the opposite. Actions can be verbal or nonverbal, positive or negative. (Later we will discuss body language, as well as verbal and nonverbal communication.) Positive actions might include clapping when someone catches a ball and saying such encouraging words as, "Wow, you did a great job catching that ball!"
Reactions are our responses to others' attempts at social interaction. Reactions — just like thoughts, feelings, and actions — can be positive or negative. Examples of negative reactions include aggression, arguing, teasing, complaining, or bossing, whereas positive reactions could include cooperating, being assertive, offering a compliment, or helping others. Reactions are critical in maintaining social interaction. Let's go back to the example of complimenting someone on a good catch. What if the other child ignores the compliment? A positive reaction when ignored might be to speak a bit louder; a negative reaction might be to become angry and refuse to speak to the child. The reaction sets the tone for continuing social interaction and may help strengthen or weaken the social relationship.
An effective social mindset is required to navigate even the most benign social situations. We interact with others from the moment of birth, and in many respects our well-being depends on our ability to connect with, accept, and engage other human beings. A social mindset is critical to the existence of many nonhuman species as well. In a remarkable classic study by American psychologist Harry Harlow, young rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers shortly after birth. They were provided substitute mothers made of either wire mesh or cloth. Harlow's monkeys preferred the artificial mother covered with cloth to the wire mother. They would drink a bottle from either mother, but when distressed the monkeys fed by a wire mother sat alone while those fed by the cloth mother sought comfort from the substitute. Harlow revealed that baby monkeys, too, require comfort and affection. Social interactions not only assist our survival but form the basis for our identity, self-esteem, satisfaction with life, and emotional well-being. When cut off from others, "solitary confinement" may be the greatest form of punishment human beings can endure.
It's easy to understand how social skills play a crucial part in your child's school, family, and community activities, or even in your own life. There have probably been times when you have wanted to tell a co-worker to go jump in a lake or tell a nosy aunt to mind her own business, but your social mindset enabled you to think through the potential negative outcomes of these activities and then choose among more effective strategies to accomplish a reasonable goal.
Social skills do not automatically turn on when children enter kindergarten, graduate from high school, or get their first job. Developing a social mindset is both nature and nurture: genetics lays a foundation, but life experience and our thoughts about our lives play a significant role. Some children do come into the world genetically and biologically better equipped to develop an effective social mindset, while other children are at a disadvantage socially. Children with autism, for example, struggle to understand and develop the rules of social interaction. But biology is not destiny, and with guidance and support every child can develop an effective social mindset. As parents, teachers, and professionals, we can adjust expectations and goals so as to help children develop a set of skills that may not be as easily learned for some as for others. Our mindset must be similar to teaching a poorly coordinated child to ride a bicycle: Practice will help develop proficiency. It's important to be patient and not set the bar too high initially, and to create an atmosphere in which the child feels comfortable making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and developing more effective thoughts, actions, and reactions.
The path through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood can be difficult for some but can be more skillfully and comfortably negotiated with an effective social mindset and the support of family and friends. In Step 2 we will help you identify whether your child needs help building social skills. As you read the next few Steps, keep in mind the specific components of the social mindset (thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions) to help you focus on when and if your child needs help, how to involve your child in the process of change, and how to target specific skills to develop.CHAPTER 2
Target Social Skills for Improvement
Bob Dylan wrote, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." When children struggle socially their problems are easy for parents to observe but often very difficult to change. As counselors, when we ask parents of a child struggling socially how they know he has problems, we often hear such answers as, "No one plays with him," "He starts fights with others," and "He doesn't have any friends." Yet a more precise understanding of the reasons your child may struggle is required in order to help influence his social success and social mindset.
In this Step we will help you identify social problems that may be negatively influencing your child's self-esteem, hopes and dreams, and long-term adjustment. We begin by discussing social skills from a developmental perspective (that is, by age). This will give you a better understanding of whether your child's behavior, social development, and social interests are normally developed or unusual compared to peers. Once you have defined specific areas of weakness, you can begin the journey of effectively shaping your child's social mindset.
The Uniqueness of Each Child
Our dreams and wishes for our children begin long before birth. We want them to have "ten fingers and ten toes," to be healthy. We want them to be happy, successful, and satisfied, and we certainly want them to form solid friendships and connections to others. But to love our children unconditionally is to accept them for who they are, not necessarily what we want them to be; and this acceptance includes their temperament and level of development. Parents discover quickly that each child possesses a unique inborn temperament. Some children are born with an easy temperament, and others are not.
A number of years ago, I (Sam Goldstein) was having lunch at a local restaurant when a young couple entered with an eight-month-old baby, their first child. The child was pleasant and outgoing, with a smile for everyone who passed. Within a few moments, people all around were patting him on the head and making eye contact. His parents boasted that they were going to have five children because "parenting is so easy." This child's temperamental style formed a foundation even at a young age to begin making positive connections with others.
About halfway through the meal a couple came in with a baby about the same age who was whining and inconsolable. Very quickly those sitting around this couple wished they would take their lunch elsewhere. Perhaps this child was having a bad day, or perhaps, temperamentally speaking, many days were bad days. These parents loved and cared for their child just as much as the first couple. Yet the difference in the children's temperament, even at this young age, was obviously making a difference in the way the children began forming connections with others and developing their social mindsets.
Even children reared within the same family can be completely different in their personalities, temperaments, dispositions, and achievements of various developmental milestones. Accepting your child's unique temperament and pattern of development doesn't mean you can't set goals and make changes in these qualities. Rather, acceptance allows you to set realistic goals and have appropriate expectations for change. In these cases, working with a professional (such as an educator, psychologist, or speech pathologist) is an important component of your plan to help your child develop an effective set of social skills and social mindset.
Developmental milestones help us determine what is normal or expected behavior for a particular age. Although every child is unique, there are certain recognizable rules of child development, such as the following:
Development is predictable. For example, children learn to sit up before they learn to crawl, and they learn to crawl before they learn to walk. They also take their first steps and say their first meaningful words at about the same time.
Developmental milestones are attained at about the same time in most children. For example, most children begin walking and talking around the time of the first birthday.
Developmental opportunity is needed. Children must be given the opportunity to use their skills in order to develop them appropriately.
Children progress through developmental phases. Growth is not always consistent or even. It is well recognized that all children go through physical growth spurts, or periods when they seem to be growing and learning more rapidly than at other times.
Individuals differ greatly in development. For example, individuality in language development depends on many factors, including heredity, nutrition, environment, and brain development.
Social and emotional milestones emerge very early in a child's development. By three months after birth, a baby can focus on faces, smile in response to a parent or caregiver's smile, and laugh or squeal. By four to six months of age, babies should respond to a simple game of peek-a-boo, start being more observant of voices and sounds, babble vowel-consonant combinations (ba-ba-ba), and respond to various facial expressions. By nine months babies start to consistently repeat gestures or play interactive games with caregivers, such as waving bye-bye or playing patty cake. They start to understand the word no and may start testing cause-and-effect (for example, observing what his parent does when he throws a toy). It is around this time that many children also develop stranger anxiety — clinging to a parent when around others (even those who are familiar, such as grandparents), fear or anxiety in settings away from home, and adamant protest when parents encourage interactions with others. By one year of age, some children are still somewhat wary of or uncomfortable with strangers, and this is completely developmentally appropriate. They do, however, continue their interactions with their parents or familiar caregivers, gain a greater awareness of how their actions influence others, and continue to experiment with vocalizations and sounds.
By age two, toddlers understand many words and can follow simple commands. They start to use simple phrases (such as "more juice") and can identify various objects, such as body parts, types of toys, and household items. They can refer to people by name, although their speech may be slightly difficult to understand. Toddlers at this age start to exhibit a greater desire to be around other children. They may start wanting to do what their older siblings are doing, and might demonstrate a greater awareness of social games and play. Toddlers at this age also display a higher level of protest when they are not allowed to participate in what they have set out to do, but can usually be redirected to something else rather quickly.
By age three, children's motor skills should be developed to the point that they can easily engage in physical play. They should be able to run, climb, and ride a tricycle or training bicycle. They often are able to communicate in four- to five-word sentences and to follow two- and three-step commands (although not always consistently). The development of consistent friendships starts to emerge over the course of a child's third year as they are able to request playmates and engage in reciprocal social play.
By age four, the preschooler should be able to speak in five- to six-word phrases and follow more complex directions. Reciprocal social play continues to evolve, and children develop a greater ability to role play and coordinate their play with multiple participants. They start to request greater independence in self-care skills, such as dressing, brushing teeth, and feeding. Their motor skills should be developed to the point that they can generally accomplish these tasks with minimal parental help or oversight.
By the age of five, children are preparing to begin school. Although knowledge can vary greatly among five-year-olds, most should be able to identify basic colors, count objects with one-to-one correspondence (up to about 10), and recognize numbers and letters. Children this age continue to engage in make-believe and imaginative play but can also participate in and stay focused on more organized activities that require a greater understanding of complex rules and cooperation, such as board games, hobbies, and sports.
With these general milestones in mind, you can begin to determine whether your child has met these milestones at a rate similar to her peers or if perhaps things are sufficiently different to warrant attention. The following decision tree will help you define your concerns and identify the types of activities that will benefit your child as well as help you determine if professional assistance is needed.
1. Did your child meet early social developmental milestones (under one year) appropriately? For example, did he develop early social reciprocity (enjoyed playing patty cake, focused on a parent's face, cooed and babbled, smiled in response to a smile, enjoyed being hugged and cuddled) and an awareness of familiar versus unfamiliar people (including age-appropriate mild separation anxiety between eight and twelve months of age and mild distress or protest when separated from caregiver)?
 Yes  No
If Yes, go to question 2. If No, consider these additional questions and then go to question 2.
Is your answer No because you have missed opportunities to observe these behaviors? (For example, perhaps your child has not been separated from you for any period of time.)
 Yes  No
Excerpted from Seven Steps to Improve Your Child's Social Skills by Kristy S. Hagar, Sam Goldstein, Robert Brooks, Richard A. DiMatteo. Copyright © 2006 Kristy S. Hagar, PhD, Sam Goldstein, PhD, and Robert Brooks, PhD. Excerpted by permission of Specialty Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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