Social Kids: Getting Past Awkward

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Constant texting eliminates face-to-face interaction. So how can you be sure she knows how to be social?

Thumbs flying furiously fast, your kid’s dedicated sense of concentration should be enough to make you proud. What a social life! Except, with all of her focus centered on a cell phone, what’s happening to her in-person skills?

OK, yes, you’re often guilty of tuning others out in lieu of your phone and you know it. Here’s the thing: by now, we all know the importance of putting down the phone and being in the present. We know that one-on-one conversation using spoken words, not text messages, are crucial for connecting with each other on a more meaningful level. But your kids? Not so much, and that’s why experts say they need a little help.

Balance Face-to-Face with Texting

The American Speech-Language Hearing Association recently reported that just over half of parents surveyed expressed fear that technology hurts the quality of conversations they have with their kids. But if kids are perfectly comfortable communicating digitally, should we maybe consider digi-talk going forward? Or are they really missing out on some important social skills that can only be gained by personal interaction?

Strong social relationships correlate with positive mental health and self-esteem, according to psychologists. Getting off-screen is key to good communication and being present for the person with whom you are communicating.

“During adolescence and teen years it becomes very important to learn to read non-verbal cues,” says Harsh K. Trivedi, M.D., executive medical director of the Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital. Trivedi says critical face-to-face contact teaches skills in youth that serve people later in life, including on the job.

Talking out a problem face to face can strengthen understanding in a relationship, while a digital connection is potentially fraught with miscommunication pitfalls. Further, learning how to navigate live conversation is critical for making real connections in friendships, in dating and later down the road when kids face job and college interviews. The answer? Trivedi says just as parents advise kids to avoid too many sweets, they should also tell their kids to avoid depending too much time on devices for communicating with friends.

In-Person From the Start

It’s never too soon to help your child develop social skills. In fact, it’s a critical part of growing up and it all begins with talking, but human connectivity is far more complex than many of us realize. We have to learn to read each other’s signals.

“Many different parts of the brain are used for face-to-face communication,” says Trivedi. “Still different areas are used for keyboarding in electronic communication,” he adds.

With little children, don’t be so quick to shove a device in their hands. While those educational apps may provide a way to learn names of objects and understand concepts, they don’t provide the kind of live give-and-take where one person reacts off another.

Beyond parent-and-child interaction, a baby or toddler playgroup provides an excellent way for being social. At home, toddlers interact with parents, caregivers, older siblings … all people who have an authoritative role. But in a playgroup, kids have more opportunities to try out roles they may not get a chance to explore at home. Plus, early exposure to social settings give kids practice for what comes next: the social preteen scene with a cell phone.

Getting Older, Feeling Unsure

You’ve been working hard to help your child be good at being social, practicing things like making eye contact and responding to questions when asked. But now, in the throes of the preteen years, she can’t seem to offer more than the “Fine, thanks, how are you?” types of responses that are polite but also a little bit fake. Getting her to go beyond rote manners takes encouraging curiosity in the lives of others and practicing curiosity, too.

Encouraging an interest in what or who’s around us begins early in childhood, psychologists say. Develop curiosity in kids by introducing them to new experiences and new people from the time they’re young. The benefits can be far reaching; some of the most successful and charismatic people we meet in life are those who have varied interests and a thirst for knowledge about a wide array of things and people. Be sure to praise your kids when their behavior reflects the curiosity you encourage.

“It’s just so much the norm now to use texting or Facebook to keep up with friends, but parents are the ones who can help their kids find balance,” says Trevedi. You want your kids to be interested in who’s in front of them and to be able to bounce the conversational ball back!

If you’re concerned that your child isn’t making social connections with others in person, take action. Show her how interesting it can be to be present and in the moment for the small and large things that happen in life. Actively start conversations around your home, and you’ll better prepare your kids to be able to tackle what comes their way without them hiding in a phone. Remember that phrase, “the art of conversation?” That just may be the goal!

 

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