“SOS: Save Our Social Skills” 6 Ways to Rescue Kids Now

After a year of pandemic-induced isolation, we’re all suffering socially — especially kids. If we’re totally honest, we’d have to admit that a lot of kids didn’t have the best social lives to begin with. They’re often over-scheduled and under-socialized, thanks to too much homework, resume-building extracurriculars, and screen time. Now, as schools are reopening, some kids’ excitement is tempered by worry about interacting with peers again after so long. Not to worry. We caring adults can come to their rescue, not only saving social skills lost through disuse, but making sure they’re built back stronger than ever. Here are 6 ways to do so.

Tip #71: Model Digital Minimalism

Here’s a disturbing trend: rates of teen depression and suicide have sky rocketed since 2011. Even more disturbing: according to Jean Twenge, a psychologist who researches generational differences, this mental health crisis can be traced to smartphones. The post-millennial generation, which Twenge dubs iGen, entered the world at a critical time. Not the 2008 recession but the year that the proportion of Americans who own a smartphone passed 50 percent (2012). States Twenge, “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives.” This holds true for all demographics: wealthy and poor, every ethnicity, in cities and suburbs—anywhere there’s a cell phone tower. 

In 2012, Twenge started noticing abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. Essentially, teens have more free time than the generation before, but they are going out with friends far less (over 40 percent less from 2000 to 2015). They’ve become homebodies who live their social lives on their phones. Increased screen time not only affects attention span; teens spending three or more hours a day on a device are also 35 percent more likely to have a suicide risk factor.

What’s the connection? Twenge suggests that social media increases the typical teen fear of missing out (FOMO), plus there’s no break from the drama of the day. It continues non-stop through texts and chats as teens sit alone in their rooms, making them feel progressively worse. Twenge’s compelling Atlanticarticle details more, but suffice to say here that we all need to put down our devices and interact face-to-face. What’s at stake is not just our kids’ social skills, but their very survival.

Tip #72: Prioritize Social Life

When my husband was a freshman in college, his crew coach told the team that of three ways to spend their time – academics, social life, and crew – they only had time for two. Obviously the coach was telling these lads that they couldn’t socialize if they wanted to stay on the team. Sure, there’s too much goofing off in college, especially that first year away from parental guidance. However, not making social life a priority is a mistake. We’ve already established how vital social interaction is for our wellbeing – for happy feelings emotions and positive influence.  Adding to that, our social lives are the rich, varied contexts in which we practice social skills necessary to healthy relationships. These include communication, conflict resolution, collaborative problem solving, respect for difference, reciprocity (give and take), among others. 

As caring adults, we can intervene positively in two ways. First and foremost, we absolutely have to prioritize social life. If we’re in charge of a kid’s calendar, we can schedule time to interact with peers outside of structured activities like school, sports, church, etc. Second, we can sneak in opportunities to practice social skills while the kids are having fun together. For instance, you could plan a craft that will require communication, conflict resolution, and collaborative problem solving. Whether or not you plan a practice opportunity, you can furtively ask your kid about what social skills he/she might have used, what worked / didn’t, and why / not. This reflection takes social life to the next level as an opportunity to grow. 

Tip #73: Carve out Time for Clubs

The advice to “carve out time for clubs” comes from my middle schooler. She says that unlike activities scheduled by parents, kids generally participate in after-school clubs because they want to. They can choose from an array of school-offered club activities that best suit their current interests, like a book or art club, or offer something new they’d like to explore, like chess or forensics. My daughter started karate in an after-school club in first grade, and now she’s working on her brown belt! I couldn’t be more thrilled that she found something she enjoys and has progressed so far. Back to my daughter’s point: in a club, kids will be more likely to meet others who share their interests, and thus it’s an easy way to make new friends. That’s brilliant.

As a parent, I’m a fan of after-school clubs. They’re right on campus, supervised by a teacher, and attended by enrolled students. So I know she’s having fun in a safe, social environment. For those parents interested in their child’s growth and development, clubs typically involve opportunities to learn and practice skills, both tangible (like cooking) and intangible (like social skills). In this way, clubs bridge the structured extracurricular activities parents favor and the unstructured social life kids want. Sounds like a good compromise! (one of many social skills we could all practice more 😉

Tip #74: Give Guidance on Peer Pressure

Any caring adult entrusted with the social-emotional development of a young person likely considers peer pressure a threat. We don’t need to read the extensive research that shows how peers influence on adolescents’ behaviors, particularly when it comes to risky ones. It’s just common sense. Anyone who has been a teenager knows there are some friends who dare us to jump off a roof and others who pull us back. Some who goad us to cheat because “everyone does it” and others who invite us over to study. Teens with good judgment (or their parents) will always choose the latter. 

As the adult, it’s not our job to tell kids who specifically to be friends with. (As much as we might like to, that often backfires.) Rather, to give good guidance on peer pressure, we can start with getting them to consider the question: which friends will push me in the right direction? Reflecting in this way involves much deeper self-exploration; namely, what is the “right” direction for me? This guided inquiry process clarifies values and aspirations, resulting in a stronger sense of self and self-confidence. Eventually, they’ll have the strength to resist negative peer pressure and the good judgment to choose good friends for themselves. The meta-insight here is that good social skills start with knowing oneself.

Tip #75: Build Meaningful Mentorships

When my college friend, Jill asked me to be her son’s God Mother, I hesitated. As honored as I was, I didn’t consider myself religious and didn’t feel that I could give adequate spiritual guidance. But Jill assured me that they didn’t want religious counsel for Oscar. They wanted another adult who was a “good person” that Oscar could turn to if he ever needed it. In retrospect, I wish I had done more to develop that relationship than send a note with a Barnes and Nobel gift card once a year. I squandered an opportunity to help a young person develop – not that he or his family needed help. I chalk it up to my own youth, the distance, and my own lack of appreciation for the mentor relationship.

Now that I have my own daughter, I’m likewise eager to help my daughter establish relationships with other caring adults. I hope for someone else she can turn to if she can’t talk to us, her parents, for some reason. Someone else to set an example for her as to how to be a good person, to reinforce the values we’ve tried to instill in her. A role model.  Someone who can share novel perspectives, teach her, nurture her social skills, and offer concrete examples of what different life paths (career, family, etc) might look like. Maybe even take her on as an apprentice. (Kids actually learn the best by doing actual adult-jobs right along side adults.) I’m keeping my eyes open for an apprentice-type situation.

But for all the rest, we are thankfully surrounded by caring adults who can provide meaningful mentorships. They’re teachers, neighbors, our friends, and the parents of hers. I’m determined not to squander the opportunity for meaningful mentorships again.

Tip #76: Keep Communication Lines Open

Communicating with your kid is hard. It is for me, anyway.  I tend to offer feedback for improvement (i.e., I’m critical) and solutions to “problems” when she rarely wants either. Often I ask too many questions that are more about me fishing for information or trying to develop her critical thinking skills than having a conversation. I listen, but I don’t always hear her. Not really.  I started to realize that early on when I’d offer several “good” solutions to a conflict she was having at school, and she’d get exasperated with me. “Mom,” she’d point out, “Kids don’t think that way. It’s not going to work. Thisis how kids handle problems…” And then she’d enlighten me. 

I as an anthropologist should have realized that kids would have a different culture. That the schoolyard context was much different from our home. And as someone who taught communication skills for 12 years, I should have realized that I was neglecting two essential considerations in communication: audience and purpose. Most times, my little girl just needed to vent. 

Now that she’s on the cusp of adolescence, I worry about her shutting out her parents like a typical teen. So I’ll redouble my efforts to keep the communication lines open. Every day offers a new opportunity to really listen to her, to try to see the world from her perspective, to offer acceptance rather than judgment, to muse with her rather than conduct an inquisition, to really listen, to model respectful disagreement, and to appreciate the connection with her. Communication is perhaps the most important of social skills. In order to help kids develop theirs, we must continue to work on our own.

Next Week…

While we attend to our own social needs and those of children, we might also think about how we might help others who face social exclusion, both structurally and culturally.  Next week we’ll consider 6 ways we can start to make society more inclusive.

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