Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Back to School Part II: Understanding Others and Making Friends

Once the groundwork has been laid for personal confidence and understanding of self in children, understanding others is the next level in developing social skills. As we have previously discussed, (Back to School Part I - September 8, 2010), when children understand and accept (in positive ways) their own strengths and weaknesses, they are more apt to accept and understand their peers without undue competiton, comparison, jealousy, or putting down of self.
Developing empathy or the ability to relate to the feelings of others by, in essence "putting yourself in someone else's shoes" is the first step in the ability to relate and connect to others.

Parents can foster the development of empathy by helping the child focus on others in everyday social situations.

When her daughter was acting out a movie, one mother took the child into the lobby and asked her to look around at the other movie goers and think about how her behavior was affecting them. The daughter was able to state something to the effect of: "maybe it's someone's birthday and they are excited to come to the movie but I'm kicking their seat and ruining it for them." When the child calmed down, she was given another chance. She watched the remainder of the movie with more awareness of the others around her as people with needs and feelings just like her.

Imagining what others may be feeling and experiencing is to also get in touch with your own feelings. When children learn and practice "the golden rule": "treat others as you would like to be treated" - it produces a feeling of connection to society and on a larger scale, all of humanity. This in turn produces confidence as well as a sense of worth and belonging.

Parents can role model empathy at home by not criticizing or putting down others in front of their children. Speaking negatively of others at home, programs the child to look for the negative in not only the person who is being put down but people in general. Discussing characters and scenarios from books and TV programs and asking them what the character may be feeling and perhaps why he or she made a particular choice can also be helpful. And, just moving about in society with our children as we do our errands, eat out, go to church, etc., provides limitless examples for empathy and demonstrations of cooperation--which is the next essential skill.

Cooperation is the action of two or more people in a given situation that will benefit them all. Cooperation is sometimes not entirely getting your way, but enough of your way to accomplish a task or the goal at hand. Children can be taught to see that cooperation, especially in group social situations and activities, is very beneficial and a way to bring your strengths to a common cause. Again, this promotes a sense of connection and contribution. Cooperating leads to the development of problem solving skills which not only are essential on the playground or classroom but in all areas of our lives on a daily basis.

When children learn and practice solving their peer (or any day to day) problems on their own, their ability to take care of and assert themselves is strengthened.
Primary Children's Medical Center Residential Treatment Center (one of the places where I had an internship) had a brillant formula to help children learn to problem solve (this works great for adults too). The Problem Solving Steps are numbered below:

1. Ask (yourself) "What am I feeling?"
2. "What is the problem?"
3. "What are my choices?"
4. "What will happen with each choice?"
5. Make a choice.
6. Be happy with my choice.

I add the caveat: "If you are not happy with your choice, you can make another one next time." These simple steps, when practiced regularly at first, become automatic. I've seen children work through the steps in a matter of moments in their heads. Most of the time, the best choice is made and a feeling of self control and confidence is promoted.
  • Understanding and acceptance of self,
  • Empathy,
  • Cooperation
  • Problem solving skills
Once these principles are in place, making friends and being a friend are skills that can be developed easily and quickly.

***Question for readers: What would you add to the above list of essential social skills?

Next time: Back to School-Part III: Making and Being a Friend

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Part I: Back To School: Helping Kids "Fit In" - Developing Self Esteem

Problems at school that have been pushed aside during the summer months once again begin to rear their ugly little heads as the kids go back to school. The carefree, low pressure days of summer make way to the routines, structure and the expectations of the new school year, not to mention all of those new people--peers and teachers-- that have to be met! Getting along with, let alone making friends with all the people involved in the school day requires the development of social skills and the knowledge of social rules that can seem overwhelming, yet they are things of which middle childhood (ages 6-12) children are very capable.

One mother asked for advice on helping her elementary school age daughter (lst grade) make and keep friends as this had been a problem for the little girl in Kindergarten.

When children are around their peers they begin right away to make social comparisons. They identify their personal strengths and weakness as they compare themselves to others. The self concept is formed based on these known (and perceived) weaknesses and strengths which in turn become the basis of self esteem.

Many parents make the mistake of burdening their child with qualities that are not based on reality or the evidence that the child understands and perceives as true in the world around them. One mother told her daughter constantly that "you are the smartest girl in the world". She wrote this on the daughter's mirror and left notes in her things for her to find. When the daughter began comparing herself to others she felt that there were others that were just as smart or even smarter. She became confused and when she told her mom that "Suzy" was smart also, her mother in a misguided attempt to build self esteem would tell her "But not like you. You are the smartest". Instead of acknowleging the qualities of others and her daughter in a healthy realistic way, she was creating a confusing fantasy world that resulted in extreme competiveness. When others in the real world did not subscribe to the "fact" that she was the smartest of them all, she became depressed and unhappy as well as mistrustful of her mother--the very person she needed to trust the most. Security for children comes when they can trust their parents to take care of them and acknowledge--(which is to accept) who they are with a warm, and nurturing attitude.

Judy Herr, an expert in childhood development, identifies five areas that children base their self worth upon:
  • Academic Competence
  • Athletic Competence
  • Physical Appearance
  • Behavior
  • Social Acceptance
...and they don't have to be "the best" in any one of them and certainly not all five! If they do happen to be the best when competing (contests, tests, games, etc., this is a wonderful bonus!)

Tips for Promoting Self Esteem:

  1. Do not compare children - by avoiding comparisons among children you will be helping children develop confidence in their own unique abilities and they will feel better about themselves.
  2. View accomplishments in the context of the child's ability and effort.
  3. Help children avoid feelings of helplessness -- help them to understand the concepts of "don't give up" and "try, try again".
  4. Encourage children to persist at difficult tasks.
  5. Help them believe that they can overcome failure - "I know you can do this--let's try again."
  6. Celebrate when the child succeeds.
  7. Provide them with feedback as to why they succeeded.

(adapted from Judy Herr, Working With Young Children.)

Another essential rule: avoid put downs or name calling of any kind in the family--this should be a given, yet it is amazing to me how much this does occur.

And possibly most important: Be a good role model--How is your self esteem?

Next time: Part II: Back to School - "Understanding Others and Making Friends"