Practicing Social Skills with Children
Written by: Joy Thibeault, LCSW-C
Hello! My name is Joy Thibeault and I am a Psychotherapist with over 18 years of clinical experience working with children. At Quince Orchard Psychotherapy, I see clients across the lifespan with special interest around treating neurodivergent clients, as well as those with symptoms of anxiety.
Social skills are very important for a child’s development. Strong social skills assist a child in developing strong language skills, creativity, social intelligence, and confidence, but social skills are tough! Children are learning how to initiate and sustain conversation, read and respond appropriately to body language, and take the perspective of others. Many parents can be confused as to how to practice social skills with their children, whether just for practice, or because they have noticed their child struggling. Below are five simple ways to practice social skills with your child as an integrated part of family life.
Paper Chain – Introduce this activity as a collaborative competition (“Let’s see how long we can make our paper chain”) and explain that you will be adding a link to the chain for every comment or question either of you say that keeps conversation going on one topic. This activity will assist your child in practicing follow up questions, making connections to the experiences of others, and sustaining conversational exchanges.
What Are They Thinking? – This activity could be done on the go with real life scenarios, or at home using pictures or a paused video. Observe a photo, paused video, or real scene happening in front of you (e.g., someone in a grocery store parking lot) and ask your child “What do you think that person is thinking right now and why?” This activity will assist in developing perspective taking, reading body language, and cognitive flexibility.
Apples to Apples / Whoonu – Playing certain games available on the market can also be a great way to provide practice for your child. Both Apples to Apples as well as Cranium’s Whoonu assist children in practicing taking the perspectives of others by asking participants to guess what another player might like best based on what the player knows about them.
A Friend Journal – If your child has difficulty initiating conversation, knowing what to talk about to keep conversation going, or has trouble with greetings, creating a “Friend Journal” might be helpful. The child can make a page for each friend or person they might want to interact with which should include information like: how that person likes to be greeted, things that person is interested in, things that person does not like, and any other information important to conversation. Eventually, your child should mentally sneak a peek at the file they have on this person in their friend journal and use it for clues to how they could engage that friend.
What’s the Story? – Sitting in the car somewhere? People watching on a bench? Use that time to practice perspective taking and reading body language! Pick out a person, couple, or small group and try to guess what their story could be. You can ask your child questions like: How do you think they know each other and why? How do you think they feel about each other?
When using these activities with children to practice social skills, remember to remain positive and upbeat and to make these activities fun! If your child offers what seem to be faulty conclusions from what they are observing, or misinterprets a situation, offer your interpretation of the situation including the specifics of what you observed that gave you that answer (e.g., “I noticed that the person has their arms crossed and their eyebrows pulled together, so it made me think they are probably mad.”) Have fun and remember, practice makes progress!