When I ask parents what their concerns are about their child’s social communication and interaction skills, most express worries over their child’s ability to get along with others, make friends, regulate emotions and make good choices. The common thread I am hearing is that parents want their children to be able to make solve social problems and resolve conflicts–whether this be with peers, teachers, siblings or parents.
While most interpersonal conflicts are normal, parents want their children to develop the skills to be able to avoid fights, bullying, teasing and maintain emotional well-being. What skill set is necessary to becoming adept at navigating the social world and becoming competent problem solvers? In my clinical experience, I’ve found that developing skills in the following areas lead to the greatest gains in social competence:
1. Getting in touch with personal feelings and regulating emotions:
It’s important to realize that before a child can understand how another person feels they must be in touch with their own feelings. Professionals should consider utilizing a program such as The Zones of Regulation (Leah Kuypers) to increase emotional vocabulary and help children develop coping strategies. Developing calming techniques is also critical to managing emotions. Parents can also encourage emotional awareness by frequently asking their child how they feel throughout the course of the day. Frequently asking your child how they feel not only heightens emotional awareness but sends a powerful message that you care about their feelings.
Build emotional vocabulary by talking about feeling words. Start with common words such as “happy, sad, angry, proud and frustrated”. Ask children “What makes you happy?, How do you feel when Mommy tells you she loves you?” Later, add words such as “worried, relieved, impatient, disappointed, jealous, embarrassed”.
2. Understanding other people’s points-of-view and feelings:
It’s important for children to realize that different people can feel differently about the same situation. When children are aware and can discuss how different people feel, they are more in tune with how their behavior affects others.
I like to draw a picture of two children: one sad and the other happy. The children are looking out their window as rain falls from the sky. Discuss why one might be happy and the other sad (a possible solution might be that Emily is happy because her flower garden needs water while Johnny is sad because his baseball game will be cancelled). You can also talk about things that might make a child happy but an adult sad.
3. Understanding motives and “The Big Picture”:
Flexible thinking when faced with problems is critical to getting along with others. Another important aspect is to understand motives and intents. Misinterpretations of other people’s intents can lead to misguided assumptions, worries, and frustrations.
Teach children to be “big picture thinkers” by sensitizing them to the realm of possible reasons that people do what they do. An easy game to play is “What Else”. Provide hypothetical situations (for example: “Your friend Sophia did not respond when you said “hello”; maybe she’s mad; what else might be the reason?” ) and try to think of as many reasons that would explain why the person acted they way they did (“Sophia didn’t say hello because: she was tired, she didn’t hear you, she didn’t feel well, etc.”). Try to generate possible reasons that are done without meaning to hurt feelings. It’s important to note that many children will provide reasons that mirror their own behaviors, making adult reflection more critical to view alternate perspectives.
4. Understanding that there’s more than one solution to a problem:
You can aid this thinking process by asking children to come up with multiple solutions to problems. Usually kids can generate one or two solutions–validate the ideas by saying “that’s one solution, can you think of more?” After brainstorming, ask how each idea might make other people feel. To avoid anxiety, use hypothetical situations and fictitious characters to develop skills in this area. In addition, let children know that there are no right or wrong answers. Here’s an example:
“Joey and Tyler are brothers. They have only one television in their house. At 7:00 they both want to watch television, but different shows. What is their problem? How do they feel? How can they solve the problem? That’s one way, what’s another solution?”
5. Understanding consequences:
Considering other people’s perspectives, understanding motives and exploring multiple solutions to problems are only part of the problem solving process. It is equally important for children to consider that their behaviors impact the feelings of others and cause people to behave a certain way (consequences). Again, using hypothetical situations and fictitious characters, choose a solution and say “Let’s think of different things that might happen next if we chose this solution.” After discussing consequences, talk about whether the solution was a good one or a bad one and why.
It’s important to differentiate between internal (Joey might feel bad) and external (Joey will get in trouble) consequences. Understanding internal consequences help children to realize that actions affect how other people feel.