Cathi Cohen, LCSW
As parents, we are very tuned in to our child’s social and emotional development. There is almost nothing more difficult than watching your child experience discomfort or anxiety. So many children with social skills deficits feel alone, frustrated and angry. They want friends. They aren’t aware, for the most part, what it is they are doing to cause their peers to shy away. Some of the indicators that your child is struggling with social skills look like this:
– Jenna didn’t get invited to a single birthday party last year
– My son can’t cooperate with other kids
– My daughter always likes to be the boss
– Steve thinks people are teasing him when they are just joking around
– I wish Beth could see how other kids see her
So what now? Perhaps your pedicatrician, school guidance counselor or just your own intution, leads you to believe that your child needs some extra help. With all of the treatment options for social skills that have emerged over time, it can be confusing to make a decision about what will be effective.
Social skills training groups vary tremendously in their ability to help children not only learn, but also transfer skills from a group to a home and school environment. For many children, learning new social skills is like learning a foreign language. Similarly to acquiring a new language, it’s important that the kids are immersed in the thinking and culture of interpersonal skill building. In addition, the skills need to be practiced inside and outside of group in order for new friendship skills to take hold.
There are a few key elements that the research on social skills training reveals as critical for real and sustained friendship building to take place:
(1) Real Change Requires Real Time.
For many, learning social skills does not come naturally. Like learning a new language, acquiring social skills takes time and practice in order to sustain long-term, systemic change. Having conducted social skills groups for over 17 years, we generally notice a self-esteem boost in the first couple of months of group, but the lasting skill changes don’t begin to take hold until about the sixth month of weekly group meetings.
(2) Parent Involvement is Critical.
Repetition and rehearsal are key factors in transferring learned skills to a child’s natural environment. Parents need to be taught the same skills that the kids are working on so that learning and practice continues at home. When parents participate in this way, they help deepen a child’s understanding and help move learned skills into the child’s “muscle memory” (where behaviors become more natural and automatic). Children acquire the necessary skills exponentially more quickly and deeply when parents and clinicians are all on the same page.
(3) Social Skills Must Be Practiced in Between Sessions.
A cognitive-behavioral therapeutic model stresses the need for practice in order to reinforce skills learned during group. This way, children are encouraged to practice the skills acquired in a variety of social settings outside of group, which “cements” these social skills for life.
(4) Focus on Specific Skills.
A well-structured, comprehensive social skills group must cover several common areas of weakness in children who struggle with making and maintaining friends:
– Reading social cues accurately
– Active listening
– Making a good first impression
– Developing good eye contact
– Improving communication and conversation skills
– Facilitating social entry
– Coping effectively with teasing and bullying
– Enhancing self-esteem
– Managing stress
– Developing anger control
(5) Groups Need to Be Carefully Formed.
It can be challenging to group children together appropriately for maximum benefit, but it is a crucial step in the process. Some of the factors include the children’s age, gender, social and emotional development and treatment goal objectives.
(6) Licensed Clinicians are a Must.
It is very important to have a group run by a licensed clinician who has had the proper training to help actualize goals set for your child. This is not only a factor for the therapist leading the children’s group, but for the parent group leader as well.
There are realistic benefits to many therapy groups. Groups instill hope in children who otherwise might feel alone. They offer a feeling of acceptance that may not be found in other social settings. However, in order to be truly “friendship changing,” it’s important that a social skills group has the critical elements we have outlined above.