How To Help Socially Challenged Kids And Teens Celebrate Their Wins

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Are you the parent of a socially challenged kid or teen? Do their social skills need a little work?

As a parent, you often look for big changes and wins. You want to hear them "getting it" and that they're really willing to change.

However, developing social skills for kids and teens means recognizing and appreciating that change happens with little wins, little shifts, and small successes.

The road to change is not paved with momentous events like in a Hallmark movie. Waiting for these events will only result in disappointment.

For example, if your teen is working on flexibility, they might not display frequent, regular flexibility.

Instead, they might adopt small wins around flexibility, such as changing where they sit. If they do it three times — it’s a small win!

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Here are 5 social skills for kids to watch out for and celebrate.

1. They're nodding or shrugging.

When your teen hesitates to respond or if you're broaching a tough topic, they may simply shrug or nod.

Recognize that a shrug is actually an answer and that they are communicating with you. Being tongue-tied or not being able to express thoughts via words can make parents think their kids don't hear or are ignoring them.

Don’t forget to look for the small wins and be sure to keep communication open — the better you partner, the more your child will want to communicate with you.

2. They recognize social cues.

As your child’s coach, your goal is to help your child understand the unspoken rules of social behavior, learn how to watch for cues from other people, and work on adjusting.

When you ask and listen to your teen, you learn about their experiences. Cheer the small successes as the stepping stones to bigger ones.

Work with your child to develop the game plan — the playbook — and the overarching goal, which is for your child to make friends more easily and "go along and get along" with others.

3. They have moments of self-discovery.

An "aha" moment is simply a moment of self-discovery. We’ve all had epiphanies in our lives. No one can have an "aha" for someone else; it’s an inside job.

Recognize that every "aha" is progress — a small win. Their "aha" will look different from your "aha" and that's OK.

Don’t correct or lecture them on how they should be because this will shut down the conversation, their process of reflection, and the opening for the next aha.

Even the smallest "aha" is a bold expression of your teen’s executive function that brings a picture into focus. The executive function connects the dots and every "aha" is a dot in the picture.

Whether your child is five years old or fifteen, they're going to have these realizations when they're ready, developmentally and emotionally.

Coaching isn’t about ordering up the "aha" or telling your child what it should be. Coaching creates the space and time for her to discover this insight herself, which is the most powerful source of learning a child can have.

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4. They're trying.

Very few people if any move from trying to full-on change. There are stages of change and the first starts with the awareness of one’s role and struggles in the social world.

This awareness involves noticing her own behavior. So if your child begins to express greater self-awareness and seems willing to change — that's a win!

5. They practice.

When talking about the social behaviors that everyone needs to have, it's more than the isolated performances of a skill. This also means habits of "being."

In "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business," author Charles Duhigg suggests that a habit takes 18 to 254 days, or an average of 66 days, to develop.

Science tells us that the longer we hold on to perceptions and habits of thought, the more deeply embedded they become. The brain’s circuitry — the networks of neurons and the paths they create — becomes stronger with use and weaker with less use.

The brain actively prunes away the lesser-used connections in favor of the more heavily used ones. In this way, your child’s story about his behavior becomes the self-talk, the inner voice that encourages or discourages him.

Studies also show that in the brain, negative self-perception intensifies our reaction to negative thoughts and experiences and weakens the impact of positive ones.

That’s how self-talk becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: "I just don’t fit in. I’m too stupid. I don’t... I’m not... I’ll never..."

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It becomes harder and harder to dig out of that self-talk rut and the behaviors that only dig the rut deeper.

For that reason, the sooner you address these stories that hold children back, the less entrenched those narratives are, and the sooner you can help your kids and teens change the story and the self-talk.

How do you oversee the development of social skills for kids and teens who are socially challenged?

Encouragement is key.

For example, when your teen overcomes their fear and invites a friend over, you can say, "You put yourself on the field, you caught the ball, you tried harder at something that’s hard for you. Those are three things to celebrate."

Being a teenager is hard and part of that journey is learning how to communicate, self-advocate, and get along with people. It's no simple task.

To help you empathize with your kids, recall something that was hard for you.

How hard was it to make progress and earn small wins? How about when only one wall was painted and there were three more to finish? Or when you started running and a half-mile was so painful but, eventually, you worked up to a mile, then two and three?

The more you see the little wins, the more likely you will hit the big ones.

Step-by-step, with incremental successes — small wins — your child builds the skills and strengthens the brain’s circuitry for positive social behavior.

Work with your child to practice making chit-chat, reaching out to others, making eye contact, holding back in a group chat, or trying new things — these take time to become a habit.

Partner with your child to help them develop socially. Don’t pressure or rush the learning process. Most of all, show confidence in your child’s capacity to learn and grow.

RELATED: 6 Ways Parents Can Communicate With Their Teenagers Better (According To Teens)

Caroline Maguire, ACCG, PCC, M.Ed. is a personal coach who works with children with ADHD and the families who support them. For more information, visit her website.

This article was originally published at carolinemaguireauthor.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.