How to Help Kids Tackle Challenging Social Skills
It was a family wedding. Everyone was exclaiming over the kids, reluctantly decked out in their ring bearer getup—or happily in a flower girl dress. Though my kids do great with the “please” and “thank you” and “excuse me” and even often “I’m sorry,” there is somehow a consistent manners meltdown when it comes to meeting new people. I now found my offspring on both sides of my body taking advantage of my body and clothing as an instant hideout. Maybe they won’t see me if I’m covered by a purple dress.
One of my sons, in particular—aided by his ADHD—has a difficult time coping with unexpected or highly chaotic circumstances. If he had his way, he would have been fine hanging out under the table for the entirety of the reception (maybe minus his tie and shoes). Prying him from behind my dress might have been easier with the Jaws of Life.
Fortunately, some of the reading I’d been poring through had a few ideas at how to help us cope—and slowly, slowly, we’re starting to see some progress.
- Seek to understand. Have a cuddle-up-and-add-compassion talk: What’s behind the behavior? Does your child feel scared? Are they just being careless? Trying to be funny? Gently help them to understand how other people feel when they choose their behavior. Show compassion, but also call your child out into the best God has for them.
- Make a plan. Think about who will teach this to your child, when, how, incentives you’ll use, how you’ll remind your child, etc. The book Smart But Scattered (Dawson and Guare, Gilfod Press, 2009) has wonderful suggestions for designing behavioral plans for kids.
- Check out some books from the library. We checked out quite a stack on manners, just to brush up—and laugh a little about all the bad-manners-users who were at least worse than we were. (Phew.) We’re reading a couple every day, snuggled up on the couch.
- Tell some tales of your own. I had a real breakthrough when I made up a special story just for my middle son about one of his favorite characters, Shiloh, from our family stories. Shiloh had a secret: He felt terrified when he met new people. Shiloh and his dad went out for ice cream to talk about what to do when they met new people, and practice the steps together. When I came to the part about how Shiloh felt walking into a room, my sweet son’s blue eyes were sympathetic. “And do you know how he felt?” I asked. “Scared,” he whispered. He was tracking with Shiloh, and laughed about the idea of giving someone a handshake that was limp like a dead fish. This is progress!
- Don’t forget the heart. At their core, social skills are largely about functioning in our culture in a way that shows people respect, love, and concern. For my son, we’ve talked (gently) about how ultimately, he must choose between his fear/comfort and responding in a loving way to people who want to get to know him. At the heart of other social mishaps with my kids are also their selfishness or self-centeredness. I’ve decided I don’t want to treat the symptom without treating its cause, too.
- Role play. Help them to see what success looks like—and when it should show up. Practice makes perfect! I’m seeking to help my kids to anticipate how to react in situations. For my son, we pretend like an imaginary string holds his head up so he can look a new person in the eye, and shake the person’s hand like he’s holding a baseball he doesn’t want to drop. For special needs kids, apps like Model Me Going Places 2 (a free app) may help your child place themselves in specific situations around town.
- Make it fun. Let your kids play “store” or “school” or have a “restaurant” night at dinner, where they practice their new skills. Let them teach a doll or younger sib their new skill. Use a puppet to role play.
- Talk about times when social skills were hard for you—and why you decided that doing the right thing was more important. Dish about a time when you felt awkward, or hurt, or scared. Talk about mistakes you made and what you would have done differently—or what you did right, and why you’re glad you did.
- Memorize a verse together.
- Give an encouraging reminder right before a potential encounter. Essentially, you’re seeking to replace a pattern of behavior and help them to know when that pattern applies.
- Pray together.
- Reward success with an appropriate bonus that will be meaningful for them.
We keep working on our manners over here! This morning, my son taught his sister the “secret” to a great handshake. Who knows what the next wedding might look like?
Help us out! What do you do to help teach your kids social skills?