If you're stuck for ideas at half term, why not spend some time helping your kids develop their social skills? It could have important benefits for their confidence and emotional well-being, says behaviour analyst Judi James.
With half term looming, parents will be bracing themselves for the usual range of educational activities, like helping with homework, acting as chauffeur for sporting events and perhaps even arranging some games that will help create a blend of learning and fun.
But school holidays offer an opportunity to focus on your children's social and emotional techniques, as well as their intellectual abilities, in preparation for the challenges they will face at school and throughout their working lives.
The current emphasis in the workplace is on what's being termed 'social intelligence', with companies actively seeking skills like sociability, empathy, self-awareness and resilience.
How parents can help
First, always take a positive approach to your children's social skills, letting them know that these can easily be learnt and that, just like any other skill, they involve a mix of discovery, discussion and practice.
You can help by ensuring that you don't label your child in terms of his/her sociability. When a parent refers to a child as 'shy', 'quiet' or 'sensitive', they can unwittingly create a self-belief that can last a lifetime, as kids will often perceive shyness or lack of confidence as personality traits that are fixed rather than changeable.
Subtly noting your child's individual behaviours, looking at their approach to friends, relatives and new social groups or situations, can help you identify behaviours that you could help with.
You might also like to monitor your own behaviours in the same situations, as they can often be over-compensatory. For example, you could be chatting to fill the gaps when your child is quiet or even apologising for your child's behaviour, rather than allowing them to manage and work their way through what might be any initial discomfort.
Discussing the subject of feelings and emotions can allow children to cope with them, rather than becoming engulfed by them as they go through life. It helps if they learn how to understand their emotions, rather than feeling the negative ones have been banned.
Many of our strongest emotions are part of our survival processes, and discussing how we tend to feel when we're angry, jealous, upset or hurt can lead to discussions about better ways of dealing with those emotions than throwing tantrums or sulking.
Developing empathy is very much a remit of the parental role. Children are born with the fight/flight survival responses firmly in place, but they have to be shown, taught or helped to develop social, empathetic responses that are less 'me' orientated.
You can help develop empathy by asking your child how they think their friends saw a situation or how they might have felt when something was said or happened.
It can also be good fun to develop a 'performer' response in your child, especially if he/she tends to be shy. Professional performers are often very shy socially, but they use their ability to act, sing or dance to help them open up.
Tips for parents
- Foster the simple (but dying!) art of conversation. Setting aside 'time to talk' will probably sound dull to your kids, so make sure the subject matter will engage them.
- Try to avoid the 'What did you do at school today?' parental pin-down chat, which will often result in monosyllabic answers and have your kids running back to their PCs as quickly as possible!
- Banish any distractions like the TV or mobile phone, and gently work on skills of questioning, listening and developing a conversation. Encourage your kids to ask the questions and do the listening, too.
- Encourage children to be aware of their body language. This can be entertaining as well as useful, as gently motivating them to use things like eye contact and open gestures can help increase their feelings of confidence. To inject some fun, they could start by spotting what you do as you talk.
- Drama is a good way to help kids explore and develop their communication skills. Setting the task of writing, planning and then performing small scenes, plays or presentations in a fun environment can help in the development of the kind of social skills that can be invaluable in the future. Even games like charades can be a useful first step.
Applying social skills to real-life situations
Once you're discussing and developing your child's social skills, you can begin to make them relevant to everyday life.
Discussing relationships or social situations or problems at school, for example, can encourage a child to make decisions based on the empathetic and communications skills you've been developing.
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