Thinking about Thinking...


Social Skills
And Positive Mental Health

Lynne Namka, Ed. D. © l997

Childhood should be a time for free, spontaneous expression. Good mental health is important for our children to succeed. They deserve to learn all the tasks that will allow them to develop friendships and loving alliances with others. They deserve fit and willing teachers and parents who can help them learn the skills to deal with our complex world.

"Don't talk, don't trust and don't feel!" are the three classic rules that are taught by families in dysfunctional homes according to Claudia Black, a nationally known writer in the addiction field. "Keep quiet, shut down and don't ever, ever rock the boat" are messages many children grow up with. Families with dysfunctional behavior have the rule of keeping things secret to protect the family against criticism from others.

This message of secrecy results in a shut down of spontaneity in the young child. The child who has been physically or sexually abused grows up with deep shame about himself and his family. When parents are excessively critical, shame is a powerful emotion that hammers in the nails of the coffin of poor self-esteem in children as young as two or three years of age. Even in happy families, often there is an unwritten rule about not expressing negative feelings. The result of this is individuals who grow up not in touch with their feeling. They often use ineffective means of coping with stress, turn to alcohol and drugs to squelch negative feelings or turn the unexpressed feelings into physical body symptoms.

There are very few effective role models of how to express negative emotions appropriately. Who among us is comfortable about expressing dismay, disgust and anger in appropriate ways? We all have strong messages about how wonderful the positive emotions are. Most people cannot deal with strong expression of anger, frustration, sadness, fear or guilt because of their own internal rules about how wrong it is to feel these feelings let alone express them. At this point in our society, most people have not learned the skills of expressing negative feelings in a comfortable manner.

The most common patterns of coping with threat and stress in unhealthy families are anger, blaming the other person, submissiveness, distractable, hyperactive behavior or withdrawing and ignoring the problem. These coping patterns are passed down from parent to child resulting in generations of dysfunctional behavior. Coping styles that were learned as children to keep the family isolated and safe do not work in adult life. To continue to live these rules as an adult is to continue to live in considerable pain.

Yet our knowledge base about living healthy lives is changing. Information about the ways to express ourselves in healthy ways is coming in from many fronts. Psychology, education and the addictions field offer hope for change to new means of expression. Family systems theory and research on children's friendship give new ideas for helping children feel good about themselves. The concept of teaching social skills is drawn from learning theory and child development theory. Social skill training complements play or family therapy teaching positive ways to get along with others.

These are new times. New times require new ways of reaching and supporting children. Our products are designed to address the issues facing today's children. Our curriculums can help you:

  • 1. Teach children positive social skills and provide them with skill training to cope with their negative emotional states and deal with the problems and stressors that they face daily.

  • 2. Create a supportive milieu in the class, school and community so that children reinforce each other for positive behavior. Teach children to care for and support each other during stressful times.

  • 3. Reach more children by concentrating part of your time using a large group format with curriculums based on what does work to turn angry young people around.

Social Skills Help People Cope With The Problems Of Life

Socialization is the child's ability to relate positively to people in society in a manner appropriate to his or her age. Prosocial skills give the child viable tools giving power over his emotions and make good choices about his behavior. These tools open up the number of choices that the child has available. Children who have a larger number of alternative skills to draw from have more self confidence in handling stressful situations.

Play is an integral part of growing up and is based on skills. Play offers the child an opportunity to learn to deal with the adult world. Play helps stimulate the neurons at the synapse level to strengthen brain function. In play, children learn to express their emotions and put curbs on their impulsiveness. They learn to regulate behavior and emotions as called for by the rules of the social setting. Children use play to distinguish between real and imaginary situations through games of "Let's pretend." They use play-fighting to practice skills of physical contact and competition. Most children naturally learn to read facial gestures and other nonverbal communication so that they can respond with the appropriate skill required of the situation.

A recent survey showed that many people feel inadequate in dealing with social situations. The ability to get along in the world has been analyzed showing many skills that are built over a lifetime. The early skills are mostly nonverbal such as eye contact, facial expression, body language and engaging others in social interaction. Social skills are reciprocal. The basic building blocks for development of more complex behavior begin with the mother. The tiny baby learns to develop eye contact, smile responsively and look away to terminate contact with the other person. These early skills draw adults to the infant so that his needs can be met. He learns to imitate adult actions and initiate play with toys. Later the verbal skills of communication are learned and other prerequisite skills for playing with peers.

Some children do not learn the covert skills of social interaction naturally, due to some neurological impairment or due to learned dysfunctional behaviors that have been modeled in the home. They become locked into negative coping patterns of dealing with stressful situations that bring them more stress.

Children from dysfunctional families do not have positive skills modeled for them. They grow up learning to use manipulation, addictive behavior and violence as a way to cope with stress. Other children do not learn skills of social interaction naturally due to some neurological impairment. The rigidity of thinking associated with neurological impairment causes the child to become locked into negative coping patterns of dealing with stressful situations that bring him more stress.

Children who have a sense of loss of personal control may turn to peer groups that foster hate and lashing out at those individuals who are perceived to be different. Children who are adept at positive social interactions feel more in control of their lives decreasing their need to join radical fringe groups that promote crime and racial intolerance. Children who are disliked by others do not form bonds with others. Not having satisfying friendships, they often turn to antisocial behavior seeking activities that are stimulating to them. Children without friends often resort to alcohol and drug use and engage in gang behavior. Children who do not have a wide range of positive social skills to draw from to deal with stress become disconnected from positive values, high standards for one's behavior and responsibility. They feel alienated from the higher concepts of respect for others, democracy. They may turn off to school activities and turn to the more exciting life of the street.

Children and families who receive training in behavior management and communication learn positive ways of speaking to each other. They develop more effective ways of dealing with daily stressors and strains. Children are adept in picking up new ways of thinking and acting and learning tools to help them deal with conflict and negative emotions. Children as young as two years of age can be taught to "Use your words" when they are unhappy about something. They can learn to express anger in healthy ways instead of acting it out or bottling it up.

Social skill training offers tools and techniques for individuals to use to become happier human beings. Family members can learn to use feeling words when upset. They can learn to approach conflict with problem solving. Learning to communicate well and use I Messages such as "I feel angry, when you ___" becomes a priority for those families who want to live a healthy, happy life. Social skills are positive abilities that help the child to interact with others in different situations in ways that are valued. Social skills are those actions which are acceptable by society and are beneficial both to the person and to others.

Teach Children--Don't Label Them!

Labels! Hyperactive, bad, lazy, troublemaker, delinquent! Many children grow up in systems that label them in negative ways. Labeling a child is a way of subtly blaming the victim. Labeling is definitive; once we say it, then it holds meaning. The danger of labels is that children tend to believe what is said about them and live up to that negative expectation. Negative labels keep children caught in negative behavior. Labeling what we do not know how to deal with is victimization. Labeling can be a subtle means of trying to control the child. Yet, at one time, resorting to labels was what was accepted for discipline. Now we are seeing different ways of working with children--teaching children positive ways to act.

As the poster says, "Label jelly jars, not kids!"

Teach Social Skills To Prevent Problems of Violence

Social skills are easy to teach. Children learn to reconnect with the positive values of treating each other with respect and taking responsibility for their own behavior. A classroom program changes the entire climate to a positive way of thinking-- Let's help each other and include everyone in our play groups. Activities that emphasize flexibility of thinking and seeing things from another person's perspective help children break into rigid ways of seeing people thus decreasing prejudicial thinking. Young people appreciate play activities which give them alternatives to locked-in dysfunctional ways of thinking and acting. They participate with enthusiasm in curriculums which provide fun activities which demonstrate respect for others and better ways to live.

The steps to teaching social skills are similar to teaching academic subjects except that play and group activities and discussion plays a stronger role.

  • Identify the skill that needs to be learned.
  • Introduce the skill through discussion and modeling of the desired response.
  • Give the rule and alternatives to the rule.
  • Cue the child what to say and do regarding the new skill.
  • Have the child cue himself through self talk.
  • Provide practice of the skill through modeling, games, puppet and doll play, and role playing.
  • Reinforce the new skill during practice.
  • Teach the child to reinforce himself using self talk for using the skill. (Feel good about using the skill!)
  • Provide opportunities for generalization and reinforcement of the skill in daily play.

A Twenty Minute Investment a Day

Children who talk about their feelings are less likely to turn to alcohol or drugs or join gangs. Social Skills Training groups help children learn to share feelings, stand up for themselves and develop effective ways of coping with conflict. Some of the skills that can be taught and reinforced in group settings are eye contact, smiling, taking turns, listening to others, inhibiting behaviors that threaten others, following directions, sharing uncomfortable feelings, stopping sarcasm and egging others on. Some of the higher level skills are resolving conflict, listening with empathy when pain and hurt are described, giving support and encouragement and creative problem solving.

Social skills training gives children a bigger bag of tricks from which to choose. Children can learn techniques to deal with threat and their anger. The habitually angry child can change his perceptual distortions of seeing hostility and threat when there is none. He can learn to master the skills of stating feelings and staying centered during other people's outbursts of anger and refrain from lashing out at others. Focusing on choices will give him the time to move into logical problem solving. Self-angering thoughts can be challenged and interrupted to inhibit impulsive behavior.

Social skill training complements other therapeutic modes of intervention such as family therapy, play and art therapy and psychodynamic methods of therapy. Social competence requires that we learn to feel our emotions, talk about them and make responsible behavior choices that are respectful of others and ourselves. When children learn to feel and talk their feelings, then they can learn to trust others.

Twenty minutes a day spent in your teaching social skills can make a difference in how the children treat each other! Aggressive behaviors during school and at home decrease when these skills of expressing themselves in positive ways are taught to children. Social skills are fun to teach because we feel good about ourselves when sharing them with children. We learn what we teach. What we teach we learn! Sometimes we even teach to learn! Teaching positive skills to children and seeing the difference it makes in their lives can be one of the most rewarding parts of our job that we therapists or teachers have.

For ideas and activities on how to teach children social skills, see our Talk, Trust and Feel Catalog


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