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Tips for Opening Dialogue With Your Children

by Dr. Michelle P. Maidenberg

During the holiday season you have more of an opportunity to observe your children in social settings (i.e., at family dinners, during vacation, etc.). It sometimes comes as a distinct reminder that your child is not in a place that either you think your child should be socially, he or she expresses or insinuates discomfort or a lack of social success, or you are experiencing them hanging out with you rather than his or her own peer group.

You may also be pondering how your child spends a majority of their social time. Do they spend most of their time interacting in person with friends or are they typically engrossed in listening to music (on their Ipod), watching television/movies, playing video games (Xbox 360, Wii), and/or communicating with their peers via chat rooms, facebook.com, myspace.com, etc.? Do they feel more comfortable interacting with their peers via impersonal modes of communication (e.g., chat rooms) as opposed to having face-to-face contact? Do they spend a majority of their time alone?

When evaluating your goals for the coming year – one to add to the list is helping your child to enhance their social skills. This never comes easy, even to us as adults. Besides, we were never taught formal social skills and were expected to learn them somehow by observing others like our friends and family. Our first social lessons are taught by our parents who may not necessarily be astute in this department. As we know this is not always the best way to develop and learn (e.g., learning about intimacy or the “birds and the bees” from our friends).

Does asking kids directly about their experiences and feelings get you a blank stare or a look like you have 12 heads? How could you help them to enhance their ability to socialize without coming across as being the “weird or nosey parent?” Opening dialogue with your children by asking more pointed and open-ended questions, they will be better able to relate to you and you can begin to create goals with them. After all, isn’t it every parents wish to have a deeper more meaningful relationship with their children?

Here are some tips to help your children & adolescents talk about enhancing their social interactions in any social setting. The communication can be altered based on the child’s age or where they are developmentally. These can be used as an essential springboard to open dialogue between you and your children.

Ask them to:

  • Think about and observe their body language. Do they look people in their eyes when they speak or do they have their head slumped down? Do they walk around with a frown or a smile on their face most of the time? Do they appear self-assured or like a person who lacks confidence in her/himself?
  • Think about the way in which they are communicating with others. Do they talk in a loud enough voice for people to hear them? Do they finish their sentences when they speak or talk in half sentences? Do they attentively and empathetically listen to others or cut people off mid-sentence to convey their own thoughts and feelings?
  • Think about their ability to connect with others. Do they have difficulty initiating conversations or relationships? Do they have issues with maintaining conversations or relationships? Are they mindful of appropriate boundaries with their peers (i.e., are not either too overbearing/stifling or cold/indifferent)?
  • Think about the way in which they are approaching people. Are they approaching their peers based on the presumption that they will not be liked? That they will be judged? They will be perceived as weird or stupid?
  • Think about how they feel and behave with a large group of people as opposed to a small group or one-on-one? In a large group setting, do they feel out of place and lost? Are they giving ample attention to all the people they want to? Do they feel stuck talking to people they don’t find socially unfulfilling or stimulating?
  • Think about what they hope to get out of their interactions. Is it to enhance and deepen existing relationships? Is it to develop new relationships? Is it to get into an intimate relationship (for adolescents and beyond)?
  • Think about a typical social setting — what would ordinarily make them feel anxious, uncomfortable, or awkward? Is it a fear that they will have nothing to say? That there will be deafening silences? That they will have nothing in common with the other person/people? That they do not know how to effectively engage in small-talk? Or in intelligent/emotionally intense discussions?
  • Think about what activities they want to engage in with their friends or family that they find exciting. Are they participating in these activities? Do they find that they go to activities just to go along for the ride and typically do not enjoy them? That they do not necessarily formulate an opinion and convey to others about where they want to go or what they want to do? Typically wish they were having more fun doing something or being somewhere else?

These questions serve as a springboard to open the dialogue with children or adolescents about their social anxiety in an unassuming and safe manner. Talking about it is the first step. The next step can be to join a group to help them work through these issues in a therapeutic setting with peers their own age that they can identify with.