From Miss Congeniality to Hulk Hogan: Developing Social Skills
by Ellen Singer LCSW-C, Adoption Program Specialist
Center for Adoption Support and Education, Inc
Of the many concerns faced by all parents in raising their children, high on the list is the way their children relate to others - to their peers and to other adults, especially significant ones like teachers, parents of their friends, etc. Parents want their children to be liked by others and to exhibit behavior in line with normal expectations for their age. Parents therefore naturally often worry about their child's ability to choose appropriate playmates and develop meaningful friendships. They know that a child's success in this area contributes to a child's overall sense of self-esteem and well-being. As the song goes, in the recent Winnie the Pooh movie, Heffalump, about having a best friend, "I think I feel more like myself . . . when I'm with you."
In essence, parents want their child to become "socially competent." This involves of course, learning how to be cooperative and get along with other children; being empathic and considerate - able to give and share, and being able to develop close relationships. Some children are lucky enough to be born with temperaments that allow this development to come naturally. Some adopted children, regardless of the innate temperaments, have had early life experiences including breaks in attachments, abuse or neglect, health problems, etc. which may result in emotional challenges that interfere with the development of social competence. Regardless of the reason, children who are more vulnerable to "fall apart" under stress, to be fearful, to overreact to frustration, especially with anger, to have trouble delaying gratification, to being overly sensitive to criticism, or mistrustful or otherwise inappropriate emotionally, are likely to encounter trouble in their peer relationships with other children. Encountering failure can lead to a repetitive cycle of reinforcing negative emotions which leads to social difficulty. Likewise, children who experience social success are likely to continue to experience positive experiences in the social arena.
Three of the major skills that children can be coached to develop involve
- empathy - understanding other's feelings and taking their perspective, and respecting differences in how people feel about things. Related skills involve learning how to be a good listener as well as how to ask questions;
- conflict resolution and problem-solving - learning the arts of cooperation and compromise;
- anger management - learning how to be assertive rather than passive or angry and learning to understand your reactions to people's behavior.
Fortunately, there is also much that parents can do to help their child at home.
Empathy: Joan, 7 was a bright little girl with mild ADD, adopted by her parents at the age of two weeks. She was able to make friends, but at some point in the second grade, she began to complain that no one would play with her during recess. Upon further exploration, Joan's mother began to realize that some of the other children saw Joan as being too bossy and that Joan didn't pick up on the social cues when her play mates were tiring of a game and wanting to do something else. At a therapist's suggestion, Joan's mother began having her watch television with the sound off and playing a game where Joan had to guess the emotion of the character on the screen. This activity helped Joan focus on the faces of others and think about what they might be feeling.
Conflict Resolution: Andrew, age 9 cannot get through any game with another child without running into difficulty over the rules. He and his friend spend more time arguing then playing. Andrew's Dad intervened and asked each child to list his ideas about the rules. The friends were able to see where they agreed and where they disagreed. Then each was asked to choose one more rule from their list for the complete list. They learned the art of compromise and solved the problem.Anger Management: John, aged 12, and adopted from Korea was sometimes the victim of bullies. Whenever he was teased about his different skin color and how he didn't look like the rest of his family, his first response was physical retaliation. John's parents coached him on W.I.S.E. Up! and practiced several responses to various personal questions. Instead of reacting with anger, John felt prepared and empowered to take the power away from the teaser by not showing that his buttons got pushed.
For more information on helping your child develop his social skills, we recommend:
Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
Good Friends Are Hard to Find by Fred Frankel
Family dynamics such as relationships with parents and siblings and separation anxiety >>
The classroom and relationships with peers and role models>>
Identity, Heritage and Belonging>>
International adoption and siblings with different adoptive backgrounds>>