Improving Kids’ Social Skills

A child with poor social skills is at risk for developing problems with depression and anxiety, which, if left uncorrected, could spiral into other issues later in life.

He marched past me to my office and sat with his back to me as he played with the toys on the floor.

“I’ll help you,” she said as she grabbed the toy from my hand.

“I don’t want to play anymore. I want to go home!” he cried when he lost the game.

“Nobody likes me,” she said. “When I tell them how much I hate myself, they don’t care enough to try to make me feel better. And they never ask how I’m doing or want to hang out with me.”

These are just a few examples of poor social skills. Learning appropriate social behaviors is one of the major tasks of childhood. Without good social skills, even the most talented individuals are likely to struggle at becoming successful in many areas of life. While most children learn from their mistakes, correct their behavior, and develop more appropriate social behaviors over time, some individuals struggle to learn from their interactions and need more specific guidance in navigating social interactions.

Difficulty with social skills is a common area of concern for children, as well as some adults. Individuals with autism spectrum disorders and ADHD often have difficulty reading social cues and learning from their missteps, but they are not the only ones who can struggle socially. Kids with poor social skills are at risk for developing problems with depression and anxiety, which can, in turn, further impair their social interactions and create a cycle of increasing impairment.

Many skills fall under the category of “social skills,” including being a good listener, taking turns, being a good sport, managing strong emotions, communicating effectively, expressing empathy for others, taking responsibility for one’s actions, and reading social cues.

Children who struggle with one or more of these areas are often teased or rejected by peers but don’t know why. They may be bossy, interrupt others, brag or say things that make others feel bad, insist on being first, try to change rules or cheat so they can always win, seek attention in negative ways, and fail to see the impact of their behaviors on those around them.

Sometimes these problems are evident one-on-one with adults, like in the examples above, and can be worked on in an individual therapy setting. However, sometimes they’re difficult to detect outside of a group setting, which is one of the reasons social skills are often taught in groups.

The best way to improve skills is through teaching about appropriate social behavior, or social rules, and then providing opportunities for them to practice their skills and be reinforced for using them. For example, to teach “good listening,” a child might be taught why it is important to be a good listener (e.g., so people know you’ve heard them, when you’re a good listener people like playing with you, and you are less likely to get in trouble), then be taught rules for good listening (e.g., stop what you’re doing, face the person, make eye contact, smile or nod, wait for them to finish talking, and then ask a question or make a comment if you have one), and finally, be reinforced for using these skills.

Some ways of reinforcing skills include having the child sit and practice being a good listener, having him tell about a time he was a good listener, or using behavior charts where he is given points or stickers every time he is caught being a good listener.

When children are not being good listeners, they might be provided with gentle reminders and an opportunity to correct their behavior. These steps would be adjusted for the skill being taught and the age and developmental level of the child. Criticism for their behavior should be avoided, as it will likely make them feel bad about themselves and could further impair their social interactions.

Dr. Weiss, a Houston-based clinical psychologist, enjoys helping children, adolescents, and adults find ways to live more harmoniously and function more effectively in their environments.  She is particularly interested in the treatment of anxiety and related disorders, stress, parenting issues, ADHD, and behavior problems.