Tag Archive for social skills

Be Your Child’s Social Coach

Our teens have all kinds of coaches: sporting coaches, academic coaches (tutors), reading coaches, driving coaches (we call them instructors), and music coaches (private teachers) to name a few. The most important coach, however, is their social coach. Do you know the best person to fill the role of your teen’s social coach? You. Their parent. Parents are the most readily available person to offer social coaching. Parents know their adolescent best. Parents have years of experience in managing social situations. But, as always, there is a caveat.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology explored how parents (mothers in particular) guide (AKA, coach) their children during the transition into middle school and adolescence.  As part of the study, they measured the transitioning children’s level of arousal in response to social stressors like being bullied or teased, experienced rude peers, being harassed by peers, or having problems with a friend. The amount of social stress aroused in response to the social stress determined what type of parental “coaching” was most helpful. 

Specifically, teens who experienced minimal arousal in response to social stress benefitted most from specific advice on how to manage the situation and the challenging peer. These teens benefitted from active, engaged coping ideas specific to the situation.

On the other hand, those who experienced a high arousal in response to the social stresses inherent in peer interactions responded best to a more “hands-off” coaching style. In this style, the parent is less actively engaged and encourages more autonomy and self-reliant problem-solving. They do not offer specific advice. Instead, they ask their teen what they think about the situation. In fact, specific advice seemed to increase the teens level of stress. So, the parental coach helped their teen think about the situation and what they thought offered the best way to work through the stressor without giving direct advice.

Taken together, this study offers great advice about effectively coaching our children and teens in social situation. It starts with paying attention to how much the social situation impacts your child. Specifically, here are two pieces of advice for coaching your teen in response to social stresses.

  1. If they are just a little stressed by the situation, listen and offer specific advice. Actively participate in problem-solving. Reframe the situation. Help broaden their perspective to understand the other person’s perspective. Offer specific advice on ways to communicate and maintain boundaries that encourage respect and appropriate interactions.
  2. But if they are highly stressed by the situation, listen. Then ask about their feelings and thoughts in relation to the stressor. Validate their concern. Strive to understand their perspective. Listening and validating will help your teen calm their emotions. Ask them what they think might be the best way to respond to such situations and trust their abilities in responding.

Coaching our children through the social stresses inherent in moving toward middle school is a challenging task. However, these coaching tips can help. As you remain present and available for your children—offering a listening ear, seeking their input, and offering counsel—your teen will grow and mature into an adult who knows how to manage any social stress that arises.   

Daddy, Can I Date?

I remember the day it happened. My 6th grade daughter asked me if she could date a particular young man. My first thought was, “Is she crazy? My little girl…another man? No way!” Maybe I was overreacting. So, rather than give her my initial thoughts, I became curious. “What does it mean to date someone?” I asked.

“I don’t know?” she answered. “I guess we’d see each other at school and talk.”

Still curious, I pushed a little further. “Would you kiss him?”
“Eww. Daaad. Yuck.”

“I guess that’s a ‘no’?” She shook her head. “Well, are you going to hold hands?”
“No. That’s gross.”

Satisfied that her idea of dating was very different than my initial fears, I said, “Sure. You can date him.”

Dating seems like such a normal part of the teen years. Many consider it an important learning experience for teens, helping them develop their self-identity and social skills. It increases their awareness of others. It helps them learn about their emotions and the emotions of others.  But, is it necessary? What if your teen just doesn’t date? Will they still learn these things? According to research from the University of Georgia, the answer is “Yes.”

The researchers conducting this study analyzed data that followed students from the 6th grade through 12th grade. Every spring, students completed surveys that included information on dating, social and emotional factors, relationships with peers and family, symptoms of depression, and suicidal thoughts. Their teachers also completed questionnaires rating each student’s social skills, leadership skills, and levels of depression.

The results are interesting. First, the self-reports of students did not differ between dating and non-dating students. However, the teachers rated the non-dating students significantly higher in social skills and leadership skills than their dating peers.

In addition, scores on the depression scale were significantly lower for the non-dating students (according to the teachers). The non-dating students also reported being sad or depressed at a significantly lower rate than the dating students. It seems that non-dating teens avoid a great deal of drama and so experience a lower incidence of depression. Overall, it turns out that both dating and non-dating are normal, healthy behaviors for teens. Both dating and non-dating teens learn social skills and grow emotionally. Both grow in their self-identity. No worries. Dating or not, our children can mature into healthy, happy adults.

Everyday Conversation That Teaches Kindness

Children are born with the tools necessary to develop empathy and act in kindness. For instance, they are hardwired from birth with mirror neurons in the brain. Mirror neurons “fire” when observing another person engage in some activity. For example, see someone making a sad face in response to an observable cause and mirror neurons “mirror” the observation. Or, in a more visible example, when a toddler witnesses a peer crying at daycare, they often begin to cry as well. 

In other words, children are born with the tools needed to develop empathy and act in kindness. The real question is: how can we, as parents, nurture that empathy? How can we, as parents, help them translate empathy into compassion and kindness? Sometimes all we need to do is verbally guide our children into a greater understanding of their emotions and how to act on them. We can do that in several ways. Let me give you a few examples.

Point out the feelings of other people and ways in which your child can respond to the people experiencing those feelings.

  • You and your toddler are at the park when a friend of your toddler falls and starts to cry. You might say to your child, “Your friend is crying because they got hurt. It might have scared them to fall. Maybe you can ask them if they’re alright.”
  • You are watching a football game with your child. Your child has friends on both teams. When the game ends, the winners begin to jump up and down in celebration. You could simply say, “Wow. They are really happy. How can we help your friend celebrate?” And, as you see the disheartened look on the losing team’s face, you might add, “Your friend is disappointed to lose a game. Maybe we can cheer him up by talking about the good plays they ran.”
  • Your spouse walks through the door after a long day of work and looks especially tired.  They drop their bags and walk into the bedroom and plop onto the bed. You say to your child, “Your mom (dad) looks really tired today. They’ve had a long day at work. I’ll let them know they can rest, and you and I will get dinner read while they do.”

Engage in pretend play. Pretend play is a great way to nurture empathy and kindness. For instance, you can prompt your child to consider the emotions and actions of the character they portray in pretend play. 

  • “I wonder what Barbie feels like when she gets a gift from Ken?”
  • “Those firemen have an exciting job, don’t they? I wonder what they feel like while fighting a fire? How do you think they feel after the put the fire out?”
  • “Can you imagine what that cat feels like when he’s stuck in a tree?”

You can also nurture empathy and promote kindness while reading to your child.

  • Before you turn the page of a children’s book ask, “What do you think will happen next?”
  • Point out the expression on the characters’ faces in picture books and label those expressions. “Look how happy he looks when others are kind to him.” “Look at that big smile after he shared….” “Oh my, that must be scary. Look how scared he looks.”

Of course, model empathy and kindness.

  • Simple phrases like “Thank you,” “Please,” and “You’re welcome” model kindness for your children.
  • Questions such as “Can I help you?” or “What can I do to help?” also model kindness and concern. 
  • Asking “Are you OK?” or saying “Ouch, that looks like it hurt” model empathy.
  • You also model kindness by offering to share or offering to get another family member something to drink while you get your own.

Your children are born with everything they need to develop empathy and kindness. As a parent, you simply nurture that empathy and kindness in your daily interactions with them. You can see from these examples that the opportunities to do so are limitless. And, as you do nurture your children’s empathy and kindness, your whole family will reap the benefits.