Parents frequently ask Lucy Daniels Center clinicians about social difficulties that their young child is having. Perhaps their child is having difficulty working out conflicts with playmates and/or plays alone. In these situations, parents often wonder if a social skills group might help. We will explain the factors that influence a child's capacity for social relationships, and also describe how social skills groups typically work.
A child's capacity for social relationships: A child's ability to experience successful social relations depends upon inborn abilities, life experiences, and progression of emotional development.
Inborn abilities: Children are born with certain abilities to socialize. These abilities emerge according to a genetically determined timetable. An infant's ability to initiate, sustain, and terminate the experience of gazing into the eyes of another person is a basic example of these abilities. Another illustration is the infant's inborn ability to understand the emotional information conveyed by smiles and frowns. Children have differing capacities in this area, just as they do in any cognitive area. For example, children who have a mild or moderate "learning disability" in this area may be diagnosed with "Asperger's Syndrome," whereas others with this disability in a severe form may be diagnosed with childhood autism.
Experience: Experience and instruction help a child to develop the potential provided by his or her genetic endowment. Children's most important social learning is provided through their observations of the social behavior of people important to them, including how these important people treat them! Children's social development will also depend upon the instruction and encouragement that they receive from their parents, other family members and teachers. This instruction and encouragement also involves discipline that is most helpfully offered in a supportive, kindly, positive, non-punitive, and non-shaming manner.
Emotional factors: Social relationships involve the full range of our emotions, and therefore success in social relationships requires successful emotional development. A child's social relationships will be negatively affected by impaired self-esteem, excessive anxiety, insecurity, or vulnerability to rejection and embarrassment. Children who are vulnerable to these painful emotions may try to avoid them and will develop coping strategies such as controlling behavior, possessiveness, distractibility, outbursts, or bullying.
Our experience at Lucy Daniels Center with thousands of children over the years has been that emotional interferences are the most common reason for children's social problems. Janie is an example of a child whose emotions interfered with successful peer relationships:
Janie was a five-year-old girl with many peer problems. Children tired of her insistence that their play "go her way." Teachers and parents discussed with Janie the importance of sharing and "not being bossy," and provided suggestions, but Janie insisted that her friends were dumb and she didn't want to play with them.
We discovered when we evaluated Janie's situation that she understood her parent's and teacher's suggestions, but was not feeling secure enough to risk the frustrations that accompany more mutual, give and take peer relationships. Janie's insecurity had not been caused by her negative peer experiences, although they had made her even less secure. After Janie's parents and we were able to help her become more secure with herself, she was able to be the good friend that she wished to be.
Other factors: Children depend upon a range of developmental capacities to conduct social relationships. For this reason, developmental interference, most commonly on the basis of speech or attention problems, can also interfere with a child's social relationships. Children also need interaction with peers or close-age siblings so they can learn how to get along with other children. There are also occasions in which a given child may have social difficulties in a particular group situation, for example, when a shy child withdraws because the group of children is very boisterous.
Types of social skills groups: Lucy Daniels Center clinicians and educators differentiate social skills groups into two types that we call social skills and social relationship groups. Both types of groups generally include eight or fewer children close in age, under the guidance of one or two professionals. Social skills groups usually meet for an hour or two, generally weekly for a pre-determined period up to three months. Social skill groups generally focus upon specific skill acquisition, such as looking someone in the eye, or saying "please and thank you," making introductions, and managing conflicts. Social skills groups tend to be "instructive," are often guided by a specific curriculum, and may utilize behavioral reward systems to motivate the children. We recommend these groups for children who have limitations in their inborn social abilities or who have had unusually limited social interaction. These children often benefit from very specific "how to do its" for social tasks. We may also recommend such a group for children who have had problematic modeling experiences and can benefit from the involvement of a more helpful adult.
Social relationship groups also usually meet for an hour or two, generally weekly. These groups may continue for a pre-determined period of time of many months or may be open-ended with children staying as long as necessary. Social relationship groups supplement an instructive skill building approach with techniques helping children to achieve self-awareness and understanding that enables them to overcome their emotional interferences with their social relationships. We might recommend these groups for children whose social difficulties are caused by emotional factors, although such a group may or may not be the optimal or only way to help a particular child.
Deciding whether or not a social skills experience in a group setting will be of value to a child generally takes some thought, and should be an individualized decision. We recommend that parents consult a mental health professional who specializes in the development of young children to decide what would be the best way to support their child's social and emotional development.
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