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Helping Your Child Develop Their Social Skills

August 2011

My child has trouble making friends and is often isolated. They say that they are too shy to approach other children. I would like to help, but I am not sure what to do.
Many children are intimidated by the idea of meeting new friends. Some find it easy to initiate contact, yet have difficulty interacting with friends and often experience conflicts. Regardless of how different their attitudes may be, all children need some form of support that will foster their social skills development.

The term social skills refers to a child’s ability to approach others, maintain relationships and resolve conflicts. These skills are acquired gradually through different experiences and become consolidated in adulthood. It is, therefore, important to provide a child with opportunities to make contact with other people and to give them the support that they need so that their social experiences turn out to be positive ones.

For a child with a motor or language disorder, interpersonal relationships may be more demanding on them. It is, therefore, important that parents prepare themselves so that they can help their child in a way that is adapted to their needs. In wanting to help their child, some parents tend to overprotect them or wind up doing the opposite by exposing their child to social situations that are beyond their ability. Here are some strategies that you can use to help your child make friends and maintain harmonious relationships.

If your child is too shy to approach other children, you can:

  1. Let your child know that their feelings are normal
    It is important to tell your child that they are not the only one to feel shy or nervous at the idea of making new friends. It is normal to feel shy or nervous when meeting a new person. You can also use a personal example and tell your child about it to reassure them (ex: "I also felt shy once when…").
  2. Avoid making any comments about their difficulty in front of them
    Some parents tend to inform new people that their child is shy. This can create a situation that is far more intimidating for the child, making it more difficult for them to interact because all the attention is centered on them. Although the intention may be good, this approach can exacerbate the problem rather than resolve it. It is preferable to support your child’s efforts, no matter how small they may be, and encourage them to engage in conversation spontaneously.
  3. Practice social situations by playing with your child
    You can practice different social scenarios by using dolls, action figures, or puppets so that they can learn to initiate contact with other children and strike up conversations. The goal is to get them to practice what they can do and say. You can also use these practical opportunities to remind them of a few basic aspects of communication, such as looking at the other person in the eyes, approaching them gently, speaking loudly enough to be heard, listening well, etc. You can also have fun helping them find relevant questions to ask their friends. Finally, you can serve as an example or role model for your child by demonstrating how to initiate contact or how to respond to other people in a particular situation.
  4. Set small goals that they can achieve step by step and gradually increase their degree of complexity
    After having practiced with you, your child is now ready to apply what they have learned in a real social situation. You can, along with your child, identify the most frequently experienced social situations and place them in order by degree of difficulty; in other words, identify the easiest ones to start with. The degree of difficulty may vary according to the situation or person with whom the child has interactions. It is more reassuring for your child to start practicing their social skills with their immediate entourage and to praise them with each attempt and success. This will help build their confidence in their own skills. Before moving on to a more demanding social situation, you should make sure that your child is ready for it. Then, as a parent, you should gradually decrease your involvement to give your child room to become as independent as possible.
  5. Give your child different social opportunities
    It is important to choose different social contexts that will help broaden your child’s social experience, whether they be at home, with friends, in school or on the playground. Their social skills will become more refined with every social opportunity.

If your child frequently experiences conflicts with friends, you can:

  1. Listen to your child
    You should make time to listen to your child and talk about the problem by helping them find a solution and understand what they are feeling.
  2. Help your child remain calm
    In a problem situation, you must remain calm and avoid appropriating your child’s emotions. You can, instead, suggest ways for them to remain calm (ex: take deep breaths, retreat, listen to music, draw, play a sport). You can try many different strategies to determine the best one for your child.
  3. Make sure that your child knows some problem-solving strategies
    You can talk about problem-solving strategies that your child may already be familiar with and, if needed, suggest new ones, for example, taking turns, flipping a coin and sharing. These are a few good solutions to choose from because they are positive for both children.
  4. Help your child find solutions
    You must help your child explore potential solutions. Whatever problem or emotion they are facing, it is important that your child tries to find solutions on their own so that they become aware that they have this ability. If they are not able to find any in spite of all their efforts, and the problem persists, you can seek guidance from people who can help them. As a parent, you should let your child think of a solution rather than directly supply them with one.

Please remember that your support is important to your child. They will learn by watching you and having their own social experiences. Help them make their social experiences positive and pleasant and, above all, show them how proud you are of their efforts!

Notes

We would like to thank Anne Moïse-Richard, Speech Therapist, and Josée Laganière, Psychologist, with the Communication Disorders Program for having collaborated in the production of this capsule and for having created the Club des Super Amis intervention program that aims to improve children’s social skills and provide training to rehabilitation professionals of the Marie Enfant Rehabilitation Centre

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Updated on 3/20/2015
Created on 1/16/2015
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