What are Social Skills in Childhood?
Social skills in childhood are the group of abilities your child needs to make friends.
These abilities include perspective-taking, empathy, play skills, sharing and collaboration skills, and communication skills.
Social development progresses from the early skills of parallel play, to conversation, and finally into the ability to develop deep and lasting friendships. Children having difficulty with social skills likely need help finding common interests with others, starting conversations, or taking the perspective of others. Trouble with social skills can be a trying and even heart-breaking experience for a child and family.
Symptoms of Social Skills Problems in Children
- Frequent conflicts: Having trouble interacting with peers; having several interactions that turn sour; often upset or angry with friends or classmates
- Aggressive behavior: Hitting or pushing other children during social interactions
- Missing out: Children who are struggling here may not get an invitation to birthday parties or other fun events
- Challenges with perspective-taking: Seeming to have trouble taking the perspective of classmates
- ‘My way or the highway’ stance: Often walking away, getting upset, and playing alone if the other children don’t do it her way
- Focusing on objects: Not seeing or hearing you, only attending to the toy or object
- Disconnected: Struggling to connect socially, misunderstanding social rules and social norms
- Alone often: Preferring to play alone rather than with others
- Not sharing or showing objects: Running to see a toy without a glance to see if a playmate wants to join in the play
Stages of Social Development in Childhood
Social skills develop throughout childhood and into adulthood. The skills start early with ‘social presence,’ which is the ability to be around people.
Later, conversation skills emerge. Children learn to tell stories, laugh over jokes, and talk about common interests in this stage.
Finally, psychologists think of intimacy as the pinnacle of social skill development. Intimacy was included as one of the psycho-stages in the renowned developmental model proposed by Eric Erikson (1959). In the social skills framework presented on this site, we have considered six social skills, and intimacy tops the list.
The 3 Major Stages of Social Development
We can group the six social developmental phases into three major stages.
Stage 1: primarily motor skills. You might witness kids playing at the park on the same slide or in a preschool using the same sand table.
- Presence – the ability to be around other people and to focus attention on others
- Parallel play – the ability to play near other children
Stage 2: primarily language skills. You might observe kids sharing toys, playing make-believe, or talking about how to play a card game.
- Interacting – the ability to play together and share toys or materials
- Conversations – the ability to have a back and forth conversation
Stage 3: primarily emotional skills. You might observe kids laughing over an inside joke, making elaborate plans for a sleepover, or comforting a friend in distress.
- Empathy– the ability to identify, understand, and care about others’ emotions
- Intimacy – the ability to develop and maintain close relationships
Why Social Skills in Childhood Are So Important
People need people: Social skills are one of the most important aspects of human development. People generally need social interaction to find joy and meaning in their lives.
Success factor: Other research necessitating good social skills comes from developmental psychologists who have found that good social skills are commonly associated with success in careers, relationships, and overall happiness.
Nurturing environments improve outcomes: The fact that you are working on these skills with your child puts them way ahead of the game. Research shows that parents who talk to their children frequently and model social relationships see much better outcomes in their children.
Unfortunately, children in neglectful homes are at a disadvantage in this area. If your child is adopted from a suboptimal environment or has experienced a recent trauma, remember that these skills will be slower and harder to develop for your child.
- The 3-year gap: Research shows what educational psychologists call ‘the three-year gap’ in vocabulary development for children raised in homes with less social interaction or where parents did not speak to them often.
- ⅔ smaller brains: When children are reared from infancy in neglectful environments, brain scans reveal that their brains are often two-thirds the size of the typical brain.
- Attachment problem: Children who have experienced a troubled or inconsistent relationship with their parents often have attachment problems. These problems can happen, for example, when the child has a father who comes in and out of their life or was incarcerated. Some kids are born to mothers who are addicted to drugs and cannot provide consistent parenting. In any of these instances, children are confused about how to be in a relationship. They will not naturally understand social rules, social norms, or conflict resolution. On a deep level, they feel unsafe and alone in the world.
- Recent crisis or traumatic event: Sometimes, children encounter significant exposure to tragedies. The family may have been in a car accident that almost cost their lives. The child may have witnessed war or other gun violence. These events will make children feel unsure of their safety, at least for the period immediately following the crisis (on average, it takes six months to a year after the crisis is over for children to begin processing grief from such events). Of course, these situations will impact social skills. Children tend to be quiet and fearful, or they may act out angrily to express their grief or upset.
Okay, we’ve established that social skills are essential. But what if these skills are hard for your child? Sometimes, even in the most social families with amazing parents, a child will still really struggle with making friends and developing strong relationships. It may be that your child has never experienced trauma or other major crisis and still acts very fearful in social settings. It happens all the time! In this next section, we will talk about how you can help your child with these critical life skills.
What To Do About Social Skills Issues in Childhood
If your child struggles with social skills, here are some tips to help them advance their skills and make friends.
Parents, take heart! Some children are masterful at social relationships, and this process can be challenging for other kids. The fact you are reading this article means that you are committed to helping your child thrive and grow in their relationships. Your child is fortunate to have you!
Find peers with common interests: Collaborate with your teenagers’ school resources to ensure they are involved in activities that will allow them to meet like-minded peers. Identify other teenagers who love WWII or will play Minecraft or Magic all day like your own.
Connect with mental health professionals at school: School Psychologists or Counselors can guide your child to social experiences in which he might connect with other children. Be sure your child is not being bullied. If the school environment feels unsafe for your child, bring this concern up with the administration at once.
Outside of those issues, school counselors can help your child work on basic social skills in social groups. Many school mental health providers offer a ‘lunch bunch’ group or another non-competitive social club during the school day. These activities can be a big help for a child’s developing social skills.
Provide modeling and guidance: Make sure your child has opportunities to practice conversation through supervised playdates and outings. Make comments on emotions in yourself and others in a neutral way to serve as a model for your teenager.
Provide supervised playdates: While your child is learning social skills, structured and supervised playdates can really help. Even for older children, in 4th or 5th grade, it can be great to have a friend over to the house to hang out. When doing so, though, here are a few pointers.
- First, keep it short. Having a three or four-hour playdate asks a lot of your child’s social skills.
- Next, mix it up. Do not expect your child to ‘just play’ in the basement for hours with a peer. Help your child by having one part of the playdate at the park, one part in the basement, and maybe one part outside in the backyard.
- Last, end on a high note. One way to help your child get an invite to play again is to end the whole activity in a happy place. If things are getting quiet or conflict-ridden, wrap up the playdate early and help your child do something fun at the end. In child psychology, we know about ‘endpoint bias,’ which means we tend to evaluate a whole event by how it ended. If you want your child’s playmate to come back over, end things in a positive place.
Consider whether your child needs many friends: Some individuals may not need to have a lot of close friends. Psychologists consider whether or not the individual is experiencing distress before moving toward treating a symptom. For many children, one good friend is plenty. In that case, remember that family relationships may be more significant to your child. Most people find that having good relationships, even if just a few, is crucial to developing and living a full and happy life.
Root Causes of Social Skills Problems
The primary reason your child may struggle with social relationships is that these skills simply don’t come naturally to them. For most individuals, social development follows a typical course from the early childhood play skills, to the BFFs in 3rd grade, and on into high school and adulthood, where relationships deepen.
For some children, this ‘natural’ progression does not happen. Instead, the child continues to struggle to make friends and may be in seemingly constant conflict with peers. There are many reasons why this can occur, and it can certainly be the case in supportive, loving homes. Parents, listen closely! It is not your fault! Some kids simply socialize naturally, and some kids simply don’t. For those who don’t, there is a lot of help available.
Social cognition problems: Social ‘cognition’ refers to understanding social relationships and interactions. This process includes picking up on social cues and comprehending social language, such as idioms, sarcasm, and humor. If your child is struggling with the cognition of these critical and nuanced social skills, interpersonal interactions will likely feel confusing and frustrating. Often, direct teaching of these skills can help a child with challenges in social cognition learn to pick up social cues and interact with others more effectively.
Social development building blocks: As you can see from this article, the development of intimate relationships, such as the all-important BFF (Best Friends Forever), requires many skills to build on each other. A great deal of emotional understanding is needed for these important relationships. To make strong connections with others, you have to relate to the other person’s feelings and be empathetic about another person’s emotional experience. If a child can only focus on their own emotions and not on other peoples’ emotions, it can be hard to make lasting connections.
Quirky kiddo: Some children really can only enjoy certain types of people, prefer being alone a lot, or have mild social anxiety in specific situations. They may avoid big parties, loud concerts, or assemblies. Perhaps you have a quirky kid with peculiar interests and a unique interaction style. That’s okay! Research shows that all people really need is one good friend and one close relationship at home. No matter how quirky your child is, there has to be one other kid who is just as quirky and needs a friend just as much. Just keep showing up and loving your child. It’s okay to be different!
Developmental disabilities: Although many more typically developing children with social skills issues, sometimes social deficits are a sign of a disability. The hallmark feature of autism is social skills deficits. The most common signs of autism are what we call ‘lack of social reciprocity.’ The child seems to be in his own world. Children with autism are generally not socially skilled, have difficulties getting along with others, and may be aggressive toward peers. Children with ADHD may have social skills issues such as interrupting, barging into conversations, breaking toys, or being demanding or overbearing in relationships. Consider whether your child has the essential skills of social communication, cooperative play, reading social cues, and perspective-taking. If there are significant challenges, a comprehensive assessment from a psychologist can help you understand if a diagnosis explains these difficulties.
Social Development At Different Ages
Although all kids develop at different rates, provided below is an expected progression of social skills throughout childhood. As you will see from this list, kids may seem to start small with very basic play skills and then progress slowly to deeper and closer relationships.
Social skills in toddlers and preschool kids: may begin to share information. A simple exchange of “I have a baby sister.” “I have a baby brother named Scott.”
Social skills by kindergarten: children should have the ability to share information about themselves and answer questions. They may be less savvy at reading others and might talk too much or too little or say offensive things.
Social skills by grade school: children should be able to discern what conversation topics are okay and what may be embarrassing or private.
Social skills by 3rd grade: Children should begin to have close friends by about 3rd grade. These friends play together frequently, enjoy a level of trust and share confidences, and invite each other to get together outside of school. They may talk to each other online or via the phone and share common interests. Even if the relationship has moments of ‘drama’ or ‘crisis,’ these BFFs make up and stay friends over time. These social interactions grow more profound and more complex throughout childhood and adolescence.
Social skills by middle school: children start to share confidences, converse at a higher level about feelings, and identify which friends serve which roles in their lives. For example, a child might think, “John is a great listener,” “Sam knows everything about basketball” or “Jenny is the person to talk to if I’m worried about social studies.” These interactions may be online or in person. Either way, children at this age can make and maintain strong and lasting connections over time.
In middle school, students are expected to have a high level of emotional intelligence. They need to understand how people feel and respond in appropriate ways. For example, if a peer suddenly gets quiet, the socially skilled child might realize the other child is upset and say something like, “are you okay?” This type of response indicates a child has a higher level of empathy and social competence.
Social skills by high school: we expect students to have ‘social reciprocity.’
Social reciprocity includes skills like:
- sharing information
- listening to others
- staying on topic
- using non-verbal communication skills like eye contact, facial expressions, and body language
- maintaining a back-and-forth social interaction
- social perspective-taking – understanding the feelings and preferences of others
- reading nonverbal cues and knowing when to stop talking or ask a question like, “shall I go on?”
- observing when a conversation partner is bored, and it is time to change the subject
When to Seek Help for Social Skills Challenges
It is time to seek help when you scan the list above and see your child is not making expected gains. Again, it is okay that children develop at different rates. However, you want to see your child’s skills advancing every year. Social development is just like any other aspect of child development in that all the skills build on each other.
Here are some examples of when to seek help.
- If your child is in preschool and not playing or interacting with peers, that is cause for concern.
- If your child is in early elementary school and is still aggressive or in constant conflict with peers, that is worth looking into further.
- If your third or fourth grader has never had a best friend, there could be a significant issue.
- If your older child or teenager is not developing deep and lasting relationships into middle school or high school, it is time to get help.
Therapeutic Resources on Social Skills
- Psychotherapist or Play Therapist: to treat emotional symptoms and help with social skills training, planning, and organization
- Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider an evaluation for diagnostic clarification. The psychologist can determine if your child may be having difficulties in social situations due to a developmental delay or unique developmental profile.
- Psychotherapist: to provide therapy for social skills and emotional regulation. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) interventions are effective in helping children make gains in recognizing and understanding emotions, improving perspective-taking and social skills, and managing co-occurring depression and anxiety.
- ABA Therapist: to teach functional behavior. Applied Behavior Analysis uses principles of reinforcement to increase desired behaviors like communication and language and to decrease undesired behaviors like hitting and tantrums. For older children, ABA may be a good way to help your child become more socially competent, including turn-taking, sharing, and social perspective-taking.
- Speech and Language Pathologist: to teach the language skills needed to communicate effectively within a social setting. An SLP is an important member of your treatment team if your child has language delays. Treatment works best if all team members can communicate to make sure your child is getting comprehensive services.
Book and Web Resources for Social Skills
Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.
Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.
Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.
Trawick-Smith, Jeffrey (2013). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective.
Madrigal, S., & Winner, M.G. (2008). Superflex. A superhero social thinking curriculum.
UCLA PEERS Clinic https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers
Barton, Erin. Educating Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Giler, Janet Z. (2000). Socially ADDept: A manual for parents of children with ADHD and / or learning disabilities.
Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s.
Social Skills Books for Kids
Eastman, P.D. (2003) Big Dog…Little Dog.
Brown, Laurie Krasny & Brown, Marc (2001). How to be a friend: A guide to making friends and keeping them (Dino life guides for families).
Cooper, Scott (2005). Speak up and get along!: Learn the mighty might, thought chop, and more tools to make friends, stop teasing, and feel good about yourself.
Cook, Julia (2012). Making friends is an art!: A children’s book on making friends (Happy to be, you and me).
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