While some children who had social skills struggles before the coronavirus crisis are now finding it easier to communicate with their friends remotely, others are struggling to connect. Regardless of which category your child falls into, you may be worried that social distancing will set them back. If you’re stuck at home, how can you help your child maintain and build upon the social skills they’ll need to interact successfully with peers — in person or virtually?
The truth is that teaching kids social skills can be challenging for parents because these are skills most people pick up on their own. We usually don’t even know how we learned them, says Stephanie Lee, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “Parents with children who have social skills deficits need to remember that even if something seems obvious, it may not be obvious for their kids.”
For example, Dr. Lee notes, “I don’t think anyone ever told me that if I’m having a conversation with someone and they start to walk towards the door or look at their watch, that means they’re trying to wrap up. It’s just something I figured out.”
But the good news is that there are ways you can help your child develop these crucial skills at home, even while their contact with peers is limited to virtual interactions.
Try consciously modeling a few of the most important social skills, many of which will naturally occur with everyone cooped up together.
- Taking turns. Patiently waiting your turn to speak is a struggle for many children during in-person conversations, and it’s even more challenging over video chat. “Right now, you could practice purposeful turn taking with everyone in the home,” says Michelle Kaplan, LCSW, a clinical social worker. “For younger kids, you can take turns being in charge of who selects what you’ll build or how you’ll play with the dolls, and for older kids you can practice taking turns selecting games and topics of conversation.”
- Seeing things from someone else’s perspective. Tell your child how you made decisions during your day and what motivated your behavior so they can practice taking on your perspective. When possible, explain how you how you took someone else’s perspective, too. “For example, instead of saying, ‘I had a good day today,’ explain that you noticed an employee was feeling down,” says Dr. Lee. “Tell your child that you tried to take her perspective and thought about how difficult it must be for her to work with three kids at home. So you discussed it with her and decided to change her hours.”
- Being flexible. Lee recommends talking through your choices and actions to help your child understand how to tolerate their feelings and be flexible. For example, you might say: “I’ve been really upset and stressed today, and I think the news is what triggered me. So I’m not going to read or watch the news for the rest of the night. Instead, I’m going to play a game or read a book to distract myself.”
For children or teens who don’t understand societal norms, use your time watching TV or movies with them to build understanding, especially if they want to know more about the shows their friends are watching.
- Try a comedy. Understanding unspoken social rules and why things are funny can help children better relate to their peers. “For kids with social skills deficits, it can be hard for them to pick up on social awkwardness or sarcasm,” Dr. Lee explains. “They might not know enough about the characters to understand the dynamics, or they may not understand what behavior is considered appropriate for that setting. So you’ll need to explain the specifics and point out why it’s funny.”
- Set the scene. Before you start a new episode (or toward the beginning, if the show or movie is new to your child), talk with your child about the characters and the setting. What do they know about them? How do they know it? What do they expect to happen? Through conversation, you can help your child work out some of the connections that they’ll need to understand the action.
- Keep the remote handy. It’s often helpful to pause the video and to discuss what’s happening in real time. You can also rewind to help your child decode a character’s actions, or even pause on specific frames to point out what you notice about a character’s body language or facial expression.
Even though your child can’t see their peers in person right now, you can still encourage them to check in with friends and family via video chat, text or playing online games. Especially if your child tends to experience social anxiety, a little regular practice connecting with others can go a long way.
After a virtual playdate or chat with relatives, check in with your child. How did the interaction go? What did they enjoy? What was challenging? What could they do differently next time? Don’t worry if you and your family don’t have a lot of time or energy for this kind of practice right now — even a quick conversation can be a helpful learning experience for your child.