Imagine not having the necessary skills to communicate and interact with your friends, family, co-workers, or the cashier at the supermarket. How would it impact on your ability to achieve your daily or weekly tasks?
We often underestimate the importance of our social and communication skills, even though we rely on them heavily to get through our day. While social and communication skills are obviously used to build relationships and bond with other people, we sometimes forget that they are also important for growth in many other areas of our life, including:
- Developing our sense of self and building self-esteem.
- Understanding other people and why they behave the way they do.
- Understanding how other people see us and our behaviour.
- Developing emotional regulation skills so we can remain calm and in control of ourselves.
- Establishing problem solving, conflict management, and team building abilities.
Early childhood is an important time to develop these skills. Social functioning in childhood often predicts our social ability in later life and has been shown to impact on success at school, finding and maintaining employment, establishing positive social and romantic relationships and achieving a positive quality of life.
There are many reasons as to why some children experience a delay in their social and/or communication skill development. While delayed social skills are commonly associated with a diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), social and communication delays may also occur for children and young people who experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and for individuals who have experienced trauma, abuse or neglect, and/or who have a disability.
While there is no hard and fast rule in determining if your child is developing social and communication skills appropriately, observations and feedback from teachers, other parents, and other children may help.
Is your child developing social and communication skills appropriately?
Children aged six and under typically begin to learn how to engage in imaginative play, how to interact with other children their own age, how to share toys or objects, and how to begin describing their own feelings.
From seven years and up, children typically begin to develop an understanding of other people’s points of view. This understanding allows the development of skills in negotiation and conflict resolution, without parent support.
If you are concerned about your child’s level of development, accessing professional support to assess their developmental needs is recommended.
While a visit to your doctor or a child health clinic may be your first point of call, additional support from allied health professionals, such as speech pathologists and psychologists, may also be beneficial.
Speech pathologists typically assess speech, language and communication skills, psychologists assess emotional regulation abilities and broader social skill development. Both professional groups are able to provide follow-up support to overcome any barriers to social and communication skill development that may have been identified during the assessment.
While this may sometimes seem like a daunting process at first, it doesn’t need to be. Remember, even if your child develops a little slower than their peers, it is always possible for them to catch up.
How can I support my child’s social and communication needs at home?
The best tools that parents have are themselves. The majority of a child’s progress is often made in the family home.
Modelling how to interact with other people in social situations, and indeed how you interact with your child, are your strongest teaching tools. Our children tend to watch and learn from us much more than we realise, so demonstrating good social skills in their presence is important.
If you are unsure what this looks like, think about the people who are closest to you and the reasons why they may have had such a positive impact on your life. You may find that these people are more likely to be positive, caring, open, genuine and empathetic towards you. So modelling these behaviours should be something to aim for.
Easier said than done right? Getting back to the basics of social skills are often the best way to achieve this, for both you and your child.
It is important to remember that the effectiveness of your communication is often measured by the response you get from the person you are communicating with. For example, if your child doesn’t respond to your communication in the way in which you hoped, then perhaps the delivery of your message needed to be clearer.
7 tips to improve your child’s social and communication skills
1. Eye contact
Get down to your child’s level. Look them directly in the eye when giving them instructions or playing with them. It is hard for children to connect with us when we tower over them, or if we are distracted by other things around us.
Show your child that they have your complete attention and that you are there to listen.
2. Have an open posture
Aim to have your shoulders face front-on to your child and try to avoid crossing your arms or having obstacles between you and your child when you are interacting with them. This invites your child to come closer, and tells them that they are welcome to come to you and share their thoughts and feelings.
Remember that your body language often speaks louder than your words.
3. Listening skills
This is more than just sitting silently and waiting for your child to stop talking. Check your understanding of what your child has said by summarising or repeating what they said. Ask questions if you are unsure about anything, and encourage your child to be more specific where possible.
4. Speech and language
The best way to encourage your child’s speech and language development is simply by talking to them! Talk about what you and your child are doing during play and throughout the day. Use a variety of words to assist with vocabulary development.
Enjoy books together. Have fun talking about the pictures in the books and ask questions throughout. Link what is happening within the book to your child’s real-life experiences.
5. Face-to-face interactions
In general, try not to rely too heavily on telephone or social media to communicate. Engage in as many face-to-face interactions as possible in the presence of your child. It will be hard for them to learn from you if you communicate mainly through other mediums.
From your face-to-face interactions with other people, your child will learn that communication is a whole body activity. They will learn to read body language and adjust their behaviour at appropriate times.
6. Provide clear, simple instructions and remain patient
When you are teaching your child any new skill, it is important that you provide them with simple instructions. Focus on one skill at a time and break down each of these behaviours where possible.
Remember to be patient while your child develops these skills. Before jumping in and doing things for them, allow your child time to work out problems or to explore how things work on their own. Give your children the opportunity and time to respond to your questions or requests.
7. Model age-appropriate social play
Play with your child in a way that you would like them to interact with their peers. This is a free pass to be a ‘big kid’. Get on the ground and play at their level and try to be in the moment as they often are. Be inquisitive. Ask questions. Show that you are interested in what they are doing and why they are doing it. Be sure to demonstrate manners and how to share and take turns.
This is also an opportunity to demonstrate problem-solving and conflict-management skills. In these instances, take turns expressing what your needs are and allow your child to do the same. You can then work on developing a compromise that satisfies the needs of both parties. It is important to be mindful of the developmental milestones during this process. For example, your child may not be expected to develop some of these skills until they reach later childhood or adolescence.
Once you have begun modelling and practicing positive social behaviours with your child, it is also important to provide opportunities for your child to interact with their peers. This gives them further opportunity to practice and develop their skills in other environments.
Try to only intervene in your child’s play when needed. Allow your child the opportunity to solve any conflicts with their peers before you intervene.
As your child gets older, it may also be beneficial to talk with them about how to make friends and the values of friendship. Encourage them to think about the type of people they would like to be friends with, and the type of friend that they would like to be.
Although the early development of these skills is beneficial, it is important to note that we are never too old to continue improving our social and communication skills. With the adequate development of these skills, conflicts are likely to be resolved efficiently, relationships are likely to grow stronger, and overall quality of life is likely to improve – all important details in anyone’s life.