Monday, July 2, 2012

Summer Social Skills

As the seasons change, our children grow and prosper. Summer is a wonderful time to help children develop the social skills necessary to grow into confident adults.
Social skills are those skills which help us interact with others in positive ways. It may be surprising to know that people not only communicate verbally, but 85% of what we communicate is actually non-verbal. Thus, our mind, body and language work together to create interactions with others.

When you evaluate your child socially, keep in mind that there are many inherent factors that play a vital role, namely your child’s personality. Personality is established through a combination of our temperament and our environment. What is temperament? Temperament is part of your child’s innate personality, which is apparent early in your child’s life. Your child’s temperament will help determine how they interact socially with other children. Are they extroverts or introverts? Do they thrive in social situations with many children or do they do better small groups?
Temperament is one of the things that we cannot change about our children. However, we can help our children manage their temperament and learn to adapt to different situations. The question becomes, how do we teach our children?
Children learn and process the world around them concretely. This means that their perceptions about the world are based upon their concrete experiences. Therefore, as parents, you should model proper behavior with consistency and predictability.

One of the essential factors is to set your child up for success as much as is possible. Therefore, when thinking about your social goals for your child, consider where he or she is currently at. For instance, when choosing a camp, think about whether your child would be over-stimulated by a camp that has too many activities. Perhaps they would prefer a camp where children spend a great deal of time in nature. Would your child benefit more from a structured camp that is academic in nature or a sports based camp? What is the ratio of counselors to students? How would the camp respond to your child’s temperament?

Prior to making any sort of commitments for your child, prepare and practice with them. You may want to visit the camp or any summer social situation prior to the start date. Make your goals very clear. In fact, most children are visual learners and will benefit from a chart or list of your objectives. You can choose to reward your child for any accomplishments that they may make.

When attending social gatherings with your children, there are things that you can do to prepare them as well. For instance, if you are about to go to a family dinner and your child’s goal is to use appropriate greetings, then first model the behavior to your child. Second, rehearse the behavior and “act” it out with your child using tools such as puppets or role-plays. Third, once your child has practiced and the child attends the event, reward them for any small accomplishments that they may have made.

If your child is sensitive or easily over-aroused, (again a type of temperament), then make sure that you work with this. Expose this type of child slowly to social situations. Prepare him or her for any uncertainties and recognize when he or she is becoming over-aroused. The only way to prevent over-arousal in social situations is through careful planning and being on step ahead. State your realistic standards for your child prior to the event. Again, you should prepare your child through visual strategies. Teach your child to warn everyone when or she has reached their limit. Teach self-calming techniques to prevent this from happening in the future.

A child who has a particularly intense or sensitive temperament may experience spill-over tantrums. A spill-over tantrum can be defined as an outpouring of emotion in a disorganized way. This type of child needs a parent’s direction to help them calm their body down and regain self-control. Often, after a social situation, these children need down time or need to process the day’s events with a parent. Make sure that you ask a sensitive child how their day was once they are ready to talk. Sometimes, as a parent, you can anticipate emotional reactions and offer advance empathy. After the tantrum, acknowledge to your child any bits of self-control that they did portray. Remind your child that emotional reactions are a choice.

Often children with sensitive or intense temperaments need soothing or calming activities after a social situation. Some calming activities may include water (bath time); Activities that involve using their imagination, which gives them a chance to process the day’s events (They may act our skits or stories.); Sensory activities (Play-dough, silly putty, marbles, sand, pom-poms, cooking). Often children are soothed by activities that allow them to touch, smell, taste, hear or see things; Reading (May be used to diffuse some children’s intensity); Humor; Time-out (not as a punishment, but rather as a safe place to calm down physically and mentally).

If you find that your child is still struggling socially despite all of your preparation and intervention, perhaps he or she would benefit from some professional help from a therapist or from a social skills group.

Natasha Edelhaus is a Marriage and Family Therapist in Stoughton, MA. She works with individuals, families and runs social skills groups. She can be reached at (781) 708-4504.