It’s no secret that positive social and emotional skills are important for every child to develop. Kids are happier when they fit into a social dynamic, and research has even found links between positive social skills in childhood and future success.
Sharing, taking turns, and following directions are all examples of social skills that we instill in our kids from a very young age.
But what about the social skills we don’t teach?
When it comes to the “soft” skills that fall under the umbrella of social-emotional learning, many people are under the false impression that these do not need to be taught; that they’ll come naturally to children as they grow.
And while life experience and real social interactions are certainly important for developing social skills, this doesn’t mean that we can’t also give kids the tools they need to be successful. After all, many adults lack the social skills necessary to engage in happy, healthy relationships—which tells us that these skills may not come as naturally as we thought.
Here are eight skills we can start teaching our kids right now to help them develop positive relationships with others:
1. Showing Empathy
Empathy is one of the most powerful social skills we can learn, and it helps inform how we interact in nearly every social situation. If kids can understand how another person might think, feel, or react, they’ll have a better understanding of the whole picture—and can make wiser choices.
Empathy is not just “feeling sorry” for another person; it’s the process of truly imagining what a situation would look like through their eyes. On the surface, this may seem too complex a process for young children to grasp, but in fact certain elements of empathy can be displayed by kids at any age.
Kids learn by observation, and we can help them to develop positive social skills—including empathy—by demonstrating kind and empathetic behavior ourselves.
Whenever you can, find opportunities to show empathy toward your child and the other people in your life. Try to remember that while a broken toy or a change of plans might not be a big deal to you, it could feel huge for your child—and let them know you understand how they must be feeling.
2. Reading Social Cues
Understanding nonverbal cues can help kids navigate social situations, develop empathy, and become aware of how people communicate in different ways.
Body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and context are all part of what it means to communicate. For some kids, reading social cues comes fairly easily—for others, it can help to point out examples of nonverbal communication in real social situations.
Start becoming aware of opportunities to point out social cues to your child—whether in real life, or with fictional characters. You might try talking through your own process of reading nonverbal communication; for example, “I can tell that he’s sad by the way he’s walking with his head and shoulders down.”
Picture books can be a great resource for teaching social cues and context clues, even for older kids. Look for books that rely heavily on the illustrations to help tell the story—this is one of my all-time favorites!
3. Recognizing Real Friends
While we may try our best to instill positive social skills in our kids, the fact is that most of these skills will come from our kids’ interactions with their peers. Some of our most defining relationships are the friendships we have as children, and it’s important to be able to determine whether or not these relationships—like any other—are healthy.
And although we can’t dictate who our kids’ friends will be, we can equip them with the skills they need to recognize the types of friends that they want (or don’t want) to have.
Have a conversation with your child about what is important to them in a friend. (For example, do they expect their friends to have fun with them? To be kind or honest? To like the same things that they do?)
Discuss which of these are non-negotiable, and make a list of “friendship rules” to keep somewhere safe and accessible. This way, they’ll be able to reference their own, personally-defined values any time they’re not sure about a new (or old) friendship.
4. Active Listening
We know that listening is key to any positive or productive social interaction—but just hearing what the other person is saying isn’t always enough. Instead, we want to teach our kids to be active listeners, and to contribute positively to any conversation they’re engaged in.
This involves staying attentive and showing genuine interest to what the other person is saying, rather than just passively taking in the words. Asking questions, showing support, and staying focused are some ways to demonstrate active listening skills.
Active listening becomes very difficult in a one-sided conversation. Demonstrate active listening for your child by showing interest in their stories, asking them relevant questions, and giving them your full attention during your conversations.
Of course, you can’t give them your full attention at all times. And when that’s the case, you don’t need to pretend—instead, you can just be honest! Rather than passively listening while you make dinner, for example, model positive social skills by saying: “I really want to hear your story, but I can’t be a good listener while I’m cooking. Can you tell me during dinner time so I don’t miss anything you say?”
5. Understanding Boundaries
Boundaries indicate what we are and aren’t comfortable with, and they can help anyone—including kids—navigate new or complex social situations. Unfortunately, most of us don’t take the time to teach our kids about boundaries; instead, we decide their boundaries for them.
But when adults make decisions about what is or isn’t okay for our kids, we miss out on an opportunity to empower them in deciding for themselves. By teaching kids to become aware of what makes them uncomfortable, and then to express that respectfully to others, we are giving them an invaluable tool that will help keep them confident, happy, and safe.
Spend time talking with your child about what they are and aren’t comfortable with in certain social situations (i.e. speaking to adults, talking on the phone, or playing in a public place). Encourage them to name their personal limits—for example, they may be comfortable talking to a familiar adult, but not if there are too many other adults around.
Try to check in with your child any time they’re in a new or unfamiliar situation, and have a “backup plan” in place in case a boundary is crossed. Remember, it’s their job to decide on their limits, not yours—and you may be surprised to learn that not all of your assumptions are correct!
6. Saying “No”
Once kids are aware of what they are and aren’t comfortable with, they also need to learn how to express these boundaries to other people. This often means learning to say “no” to things that cross the line.
As adults, we can sometimes be hesitant to teach our kids to say “no.” After all, this gives them the power to say it to us! But if we take the time to explain to our kids why boundaries are important, we have a responsibility to also give them the tools to enforce those boundaries—and to trust that they can use them well.
Make sure your child knows that they always have the right to say “no” if something makes them uncomfortable—even if an adult is the one asking. Practice setting boundaries in different ways; for example, by saying, “I’m not comfortable with that,” “no, thank you,” or “let’s do something else.”
Setting boundaries does not require an explanation, but some kids may find it easier to say “no” with confidence—and to stick with this decision—if they’ve already given it some thought. The better they know themselves and their limits, the easier it will be to enforce them.
7. Conflict Resolution
Conflict is inevitable, no matter how many positive social skills our kids may have. And in many cases, when a problem arises, our kids turn straight to us to help them solve it—which we happily (and often mistakenly) do.
When our kids have a problem, we think it’s our job to act as the witness, attorney, judge, and jury simultaneously—to decide who’s right and wrong, and to dole out punishments appropriately. But this justice system is flawed, and often leads to kids feeling even more frustrated. And it definitely doesn’t teach them any conflict resolution skills of their own!
Instead of trying to solve a problem by figuring out who to blame (and subsequently punish), encourage your kids to work out their conflicts by first naming the problem—and then focusing on a solution.
Under this system, it doesn’t matter “who started it”. It only matters what happens next.
“Say you’re sorry.” It’s a command we give to kids constantly, and yet most of them don’t come away with any understanding of what it means to give a real apology. After all, just saying the words doesn’t necessarily solve anything!
Real apologies can’t typically happen right away; they often require some time to reflect on what happened, why it happened, and how to go about fixing it. This means that a genuine apology is almost always longer than just the words, “I’m sorry.”
As hard as it is to admit when we’re in the wrong, kids need to see us apologize for the mistakes we make. We’re only human, after all, and we are bound to make some wrong choices. By admitting our mistakes and giving kids a genuine apology when they need one, we’re showing them the power of saying “sorry” and truly meaning it.
Remember, kids learn through observation—so modeling positive social skills for our kids is one of the most promising ways to make sure they stick. And it can’t hurt to practice positive social behavior ourselves, either; we can all benefit from learning new skills that will improve our lives and relationships with one another.