By Lisa Phillips, MSW, LMSW
One of the biggest concerns of parents and teachers during the pandemic has been the potential for a negative effect on children’s social-emotional development. While the true impact isn’t yet known, some children will definitely need extra support and guidance in developing the skills needed for establishing and maintaining friendships. As you read the camp issue this month, think about how you can help your child make and keep friends this summer. Here are some ideas:
Establish expectations of how you treat others. Many people feel civility among adults has waned during the pandemic, and it’s unrealistic to expect our children to treat others better than we do. How do you model common courtesy, thoughtfulness, and good manners in social interactions, whether they occur in person or online? We are always role modeling for our children, whether we realize it or not, and our own ability to be kind, empathize, and appropriately assertive is a road map for them.
Practice social skills at home. Every day, parents have the opportunity to enhance their child’s social skills through the following experiences: playing games so a child can learn to be a good sport, learning to take turns with toys with siblings, resolving conflicts through problem-solving, using humor to help a child look at the funny side of things, and learning to cope when frustration inevitably occurs. Role play with your child to help them think about how to approach a group or potential new friend. Talk to your child about using ice breakers such as “That’s a great drawing you did. Could you show me some of your other ones?” Roleplaying how to approach a group that’s playing by watching what’s happening for a minute before trying to join in, finding a way to offer something helpful to the group, and asking questions without breaking up the game, are all different strategies for integrating oneself. Does your child know how to lose without getting so frustrated they lash out? Playing board games as a family, and modeling and insisting on good sportsmanship, can be skill builders to help your child become a playmate that other children enjoy interacting with.
Encourage empathy. Learning to effectively manage and regulate our emotions is an important aspect of social competence. We help our children manage feelings by helping them identify their own, and then, when they are feeling calm, encourage them to think about the feelings and motivations of others. When a teammate looks dejected after letting in a goal that lost a soccer game, point out to your child that he looks as if he could use a friend, and encourage your son or daughter to go check on him. Asking questions such as “What do you think that was like for her?” when you are discussing the social ups and downs of their classmates can help our children to consider others’ experiences that may be different from their own.
Mind your manners. While elementary school-age children don’t expect each other to follow formal etiquette, some basic manners help everyone feel comfortable. We’ve all been less socially active than usual these past two years, and some of these skills may not have gotten a lot of practice in the comfort of our home. Greetings and goodbyes, meal time behaviors such as not grabbing food off others’ plates or commenting on what others are eating, and asking to use someone else’s belongings or wait for a turn, rather than grabbing, are all examples of some behaviors that may need to be fine-tuned to make social situations go more smoothly.
Listen to and acknowledge your child’s feelings about friendships. When your child comes to you with a concern about a friend, try to respond with empathy and support, rather than being dismissive or feeling like you must fix the situation. If a child truly seems unable to develop the skills needed to relate to other children, seek professional support and advice.