Increasing Your Child's Social Skills

Increasing Your Child’s Social Skills Through Play
by Ron Huxley
Does your child have trouble making friends or struggle with cooperation and sharing? There is a simple solution: Play with them!

Many parents feel uncomfortable playing house or pretending that the puppets are alive. The reason for this is often due to parents’ childhood experiences around play. Parents also get hung up on gender roles about what it means to be an adult/parent. While caretaking is an accepted job description, play may not feel comfortable for many parents. Research demonstrates unequivocally that the more children are played with, the better they are in social situations with their peers. In addition, the earlier social problems are caught and corrected the better a child's functioning throughout life. Consequently it may be necessary for parents to work through personal issues around play to help their children increase their social skills.

When parents play with their child they are able to recognize difficulties they may be having and have the opportune moment to intervene with modeling, play-related activities, rehearsal/ practice, and/or prompting. Although parents don’t have to be a child psychologist to intervene, they should be cautious about over diagnosing social problems. All children struggle with social skills. All children have areas of development that are advanced and (often at the same time) delayed. If problems are severe and persistent, a professional should be consulted, otherwise go ahead and play!

Parents can structure play that incorporates both quiet and vigorous activities. Allow for moments of unstructured time as well. Don’t feel that every moment requires adult intervention. Keep close supervision for younger children but allow them to play with siblings and peers when possible and work out conflicts on their own. Intervene when things get hot and offer ideas for how to resolve conflicts. A comedian once joked that the definition of Sibling Rivalry was “any two children in a room.” Strive to balance structure with non-structure, high supervision with low supervision, one-on-one play with group play, etc.

A common problem in play is an inability to compromise and share. If a toy is causing trouble between two children and a solution cannot be reached, pick up the toy, declare that this toy is not allowing sharing to be in the room and it will have to be put away so sharing can come back. Externalize the problem on the toy and keep it off individuals. This eliminates shame and makes space for cooperation. Often the children will have a change of mind about using cooperative strategies when the toy is removed from both of them. Use your judgment about whether the toy should have a “time-out” or not. When the toy is reintroduced to the play, rehearse the cooperative strategy you expect from the children before giving it back. Watch closely and provide prompts to prevent old, ineffective strategies from taking over. Reward with social praise any and all successful attempts to “allow sharing to be in the room.”

Additionally, keep the age of the child in mind when choosing play activities. Don’t be surprised if older children sometimes want to play “younger” activities. This is a sign of their immature social skills. Start there but gradually introduce age-appropriate play. Be patient. Don’t worry about winning and losing for now. Some children are very competitive and may even cheat to win a game. Point out this and try to pace the needs of the child or find an activity that focuses on the process and not the end result.

Action Items:

1. Rate your child’s social skill level on a scale of one to ten with one being “No Social Skills” and ten being “Amazing Social Skills.”

2. Based on the number you chose, pick activities that you can use with your child to increase this number just one step higher. Do this for one month.

3. Follow steps 1 and 2 above again. Continue in this manner if you feel you are making success. If you are not, consult with a professional for more help.

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