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5 Social Skills Kids Need To Practice Before They Head Back To School

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Happy mom and daughter at the beach

Your child looks down, eyes diverting from the bank teller and you impatiently think, “Come on, spit it out!”

You witness what seems to be paralysis. She starts sentences then stops them, hesitates, and as the teller’s eyes divert from her to you, she eventually utters words that are inaudible and incomprehensible.

Later, when you ask her what was going on, she says, “I don’t speak because I don’t know what to say.”

Having difficulty articulating thoughts, especially under pressure, is a common problem. A lot of kids simply haven't perfected the art, and a summer spent ... well, being a kid .... doesn't tend to sharpen a child's communication skills. Yet it's a skill that can be learned — even in the summertime — through social skills practice.

Now is the time to practice those social skills — before school starts back up again for fall.

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Kids often don't speak because they don't know what to say

In social situations, your kid may fall behind fast-talking friends, or they may come off sounding like they are clueless when they know the content well. She may hesitate to raise her hand in the classroom, or cringe when called upon, for fear of incorrectly putting her thoughts into words.

Your kid may have difficulty with his working (short-term) memory, and instead favor long-term memory. His peers may prefer working memory which is essentially putting information “on the tip of their tongue.”

Working memory retains information for seconds and is easy to access, but the information is not stored there for long, unless it is moved to long-term memory. For your child to access this long-term information, they need to “pull up” the information, which takes longer to formulate and can slow them down when speaking.

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Anxiety can exacerbate it

The ability to feel comfortable speaking is an important part of living a normal life. Even the slightest bit of anxiety when trying to speak — especially around intimidating people and situations — may make it even more difficult to articulate the right words. Anxiety prevents us from living our lives the way we would like to.

When we are feeling anxious, the stress hormone cortisol is released in large amounts and affects the brain. This can lead to memory loss and problems with recall and can make it incredibly difficult to get your words out in a manner that is both comfortable and coherent.

Benefits of talking to others

Talking to others not only provides connection, comfort, and understanding but also offers opportunities to talk about shared experiences as well as prevent feelings of loneliness and isolation. It relieves stress, builds connections, helps with decision-making, provides a venue to express thoughts and feelings and exposes us to new perspectives.

Additionally, research suggests that having strong social ties, or people you can talk to, is linked to a longer life. In contrast, social isolation and loneliness are linked to depression, poorer health outcomes, and a risk of premature death.

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The connection between the brain and talking

Research shows us that talking is a way to diminish the response of the brain’s amygdala, which initiates the “fight or flight” response when we’re feeling intense emotions like fear, anxiety or aggression.

As a result, when you get stressed out or overwhelmed, this part of your brain takes control and can even override your more logical thought processes. By talking through our experiences, we can override the amygdala’s response and cope with the feelings in a more effective way.

You don’t want to live inside your head, and you certainly don’t want to be suffering from so much anxiety that you can’t interact with others.

5 reasons kids struggle to speak — and the social skills they can practice before school starts

1. They are upset.

Your kid may find it easier to express himself better when writing than in a conversation when eye contact is expected.  A social skill to try with your kid is to ask them to write down how they feel about an event or dialog that left them agitated. This will help them put a name to their emotions and help them work through their feelings. If they ask for your advice, be as unbiased as possible.

More than likely, they will want to do this work alone, accessing the long-term portion of their brains. Caution them against shooting out texts and emails when upset as this can bring on another set of problems.

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2. Their mind goes blank.

When your kid struggles to remember a word or a piece of information, it may be due to anxiety, intimidation, shyness, fear of “getting caught” or just not being able to extract it from memory. The summer is the perfect time to practice calming strategies such as deep breathing, mindfulness and patience.

Assure your child that it is OK to be quiet for a few moments. People may try to push, but let them know that they can say prepared responses such as, “I haven’t thought of that before,” or “Let me think about that.” Nonverbal signals work too, like tilting your head and furrowing the brow. Humor is also a great way to sidestep awkwardness.

Let your kid know that it is perfectly acceptable to say you need some time to think about it and will get back to them later by email or text.

3. They are afraid of being judged.

Many people experience that if they talk, they’ll have people look down on them. This emotional pain can be difficult to overcome, but helping your child learn to read the room can help them realize that people probably aren’t judging them. New summer activities will help them read the room and initiate conversations. Practicing talking to new people is a great exercise to help overcome the fear of being judged. Summer is also a wonderful time to get closer to friends. Close friendships help build your child’s confidence and the more time your child practices talking, the easier a time they’ll have talking with others.

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4. They overthink or their thoughts 'bounce.'

Your kid may consider each question carefully, even to the point of overthinking it. The question may also bring up some feelings or other thoughts, so they feel “scattered” and have a hard time putting the words into sentences.

Work with your child to pause, listen, then focus their comments in order to build on the other person’s last comment. Practice with your child by asking questions to refocus and better understand the other person’s thoughts. Practice staying on topic and note if the other speaker is veering to a new topic or staying with the original topic. 

Be curious and help your child recognize that they may possibly not be focusing on the real question, or are drifting away in their own thoughts.

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5. They have received negative reinforcement.

If your child is avoiding challenging her anxiety, “negative reinforcement” may make the fear stronger. Fear can be hard to dismantle, so practice over the summer social skills with your kid that help reduce anxiety, such as calming techniques. Remind your child of a time she had gotten up and spoken in front of a group. Help her realize that she is able to do it again.

These are just a few social skills tips and techniques that can help your kids overcome difficulties with speaking. If anxiety is at the root, I recommend working on reducing the anxiety first so that it no longer feels overwhelming. The key is to distract the mind so that it doesn’t focus too heavily on the way the body feels. This will help the automatic processes (like talking) remain automatic. By not focusing on the way she feels, she will reduce the risk of it repeating. Any form of relaxation has the potential to free up thoughts.

Help your child embrace who they are, and above all else, do not try to force them. “Participation” means more than just speaking. It’s paying attention when you speak, it’s completing assignments, it’s being on time and it’s also helping others. Most important, celebrate their strengths.

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Caroline Maguire, M.Ed., ACCG, PCC founded and facilitates a comprehensive SEL training methodology for adults, parents, clinicians, and academic professionals on how to develop critical social, emotional and behavioral skills, in themselves and in others.

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This article was originally published at the author's website. Reprinted with permission from the author.