How can parents help their kids develop essential social skills?

Elementary-age children frequently have problems with social relationships, particularly kids with ADHD and/or learning disabilities. They might be impulsive and bossy. They might miss the nonverbal cues that signal how others respond to them. Children who are slow processors or those with language problems have trouble keeping up with conversations. Anxiety is often a problem when children have had bad experiences in their relationships, and they expect failure.

Unfortunately, children (like adults) don’t see what it is they are not getting that produces negative results. These children need to learn how to understand the big picture of social situations and viewpoints other than their own. Most importantly, they need to learn behaviors that will help them make–and keep–friends. The following are important strategies to help your child develop these essential social skills.


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  • help build your children’s understanding of body language
  • teach your kids to calm themselves
  • write or draw social situations
  • find new ways to handle old problems
  • discuss the outcomes of social choices

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  • teach by lecturing
  • expect your child to understand immediately
  • criticize
  • forget the need to educate kids about taking responsibility
  • have unreasonable expectations

Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do help build your children’s understanding of body language

Work with your children to grasp their own body language, as well as the body language of others. Watch people, TV and movies, and be sure to comment on how their posture or expressions seem to you. Discuss the posture, gestures and facial cues that show who is friendly, mad, bored, etc. Use any film or show that has characters to demonstrate social interaction, even SpongeBob.

Help your children understand the messages their body language is sending. Good body language includes making eye contact, posture, gestures, words and tone of voice that send friendly messages. Praise your children’s use of good body language with friends. Talk about how specific body messages connect to choices. For example, “Look at Sandy. She looks tired/upset/stressed. This would be a bad time to bring up that favor you want.”

Do teach your kids to calm themselves

Anyone who is too anxious or upset does not think logically and can’t make good choices. Counting to 10, taking a few deep breaths or taking a break to go on a walk or go to the bathroom can give an individual enough time to chill.

Do write or draw social situations

Write or draw out social situations so your child can grasp the big picture of what is going on. Try using social stories with young children (visit to learn more).

Use a real situation and make a story. Follow the characters and talk about what happens when they make different choices. Young children typically enjoy illustrating their own books. Visuals also help older children. Try using a whiteboard to draw out situations for them.

For example, an older child might say, “No one in my class likes me.” In this scenario, draw the class (circles for people), ask for names and ask who is unfriendly. It usually turns out to be a few children, and the rest of the class is neutral, friendly or just unknown.

Do find new ways to handle old problems

Most of the time, it is not new problems that cause trouble. Rather, it is the same basic issues over and over. You can help your child come up with new tools and strategies in advance. Try role-playing together or talking through specific situations that might present problems, such as a birthday party or family event. And brainstorm alternate strategies for handling what happens.

Do discuss the outcomes of social choices

Doing nothing is sometimes the best choice. Discuss how to be resilient, when to let things go, how to use humor and how to move on. Children can get stuck and panic when they have made a mistake. Catch them doing it right as often as you can because adults tend to do the opposite.

Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not teach by lecturing

Lecturing is boring and unhelpful. Modeling the behavior or ideas you want to teach is the best. Talk about what you are doing. When you do talk to your child about his/her behavior directly, use humor to make it fun.

Do not expect your child to understand immediately

Do not assume your child will “get it” right away. You need to use social thinking out loud, use lots of repetition and expect this process to take time.

Do not criticize

Remember not to criticize or continuously say, “Don’t do that.” If your child knew how to do something more successfully, he or she would. So be sure to teach an alternative.

Do not forget the need to educate kids about taking responsibility

Many kids say,“It’s not fair” and “It’s his fault.” But this does not excuse making bad choices, which gets kids in trouble. Children often think that saying, “I’m sorry” means “I’m guilty.” However, remember to tell kids that “I’m sorry” also can mean “I feel bad that you feel bad, even if I didn’t intend it.”

Do not have unreasonable expectations

Be reasonable. For example, if your child is extremely shy, he or she will not be the social butterfly at your next family reunion. Instead, give your child a chance to get together with a few people at a time, doing something very comfortable


Social skills are more of a key to success in life than high grades. Don’t underestimate the importance of spending time to develop these vital skills. Patience is the key to success. Learning new skills takes time and practice.

We all get frustrated, but anger backfires. Modeling, prompting and praising works much better than criticism. Expect setbacks. Share your cue words for prompting good social awareness and behavior with coaches, teachers and other adults, who are working with your child. Ultimately, new behaviors will become automatic.

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