Busting Toxic Stress Effects on Children’s Social Skills

Busting Toxic Stress Effects on Children’s Social Skills

Today we are going to talk about kids who might have particular problems with social skills and add a little brain science to our discussion.

Social skills are complex and take time for all children to learn. For children who have experienced trauma, also called toxic stress, learning social skills can be especially challenging. Trauma can have a serious impact on children’s normal developmental processes, making it difficult for them to understand social cues, develop good emotional regulation, be able to take the perspective of others, and develop empathy.

One of the most powerful ways that trauma creates difficulties for children’s abilities to make friends is by affecting different areas of the brain. Research shows that trauma has negative impacts on children’s abilities to make decisions and control their impulses. At the same time, trauma can affect children’s reactivity to stress and emotional situations. So, children who have experienced trauma may feel emotions (like being nervous about meeting new people) more extremely at the same time that they may have difficulty controlling their responses and behavior (like running away or being rude). As you might guess, this can make for some messy social situations!

The hopeful news is that even though trauma can affect the developing brain, we know from research that the brain is plastic (meaning that it keeps growing and changing) for many years across childhood and adolescence. That means that adults can help children who have experienced trauma to learn social skills and how to make friends. We have some suggestions here:

  • Build on existing skills

We can approach social skills deficits much as we would academic or learning problems. If a child has difficulty reading, we are going to first identify and then build on the skills that the child already has so he can continue to advance and become a better reader. We can do the same when teaching social skills. For example, if we see that a child is good at going up to friends and asking to play but then has a hard time sharing and grabs toys from others, we can give her positive feedback about approaching new friends appropriately. “I really like the friendly way you asked those other kids to play!” Then we can focus on helping her learn the steps to share with her friends. It is then important to give opportunities to try out the new skill with you nearby to help if needed.

  • Understanding Emotions

One area that children who have experienced trauma often have trouble with is the ability to read social cues correctly. Without this vital skill, children may have guess (often incorrectly) at what others mean. And because their reactivity systems may have been affected by trauma, they may jump to the most extreme reaction first: “They don’t like me; I did something wrong.” Here’s an example of how this may play out: two children are creating a block tower together and one child accidentally bumps and knocks over the tower. The child who knocked it over immediately expresses in both his body language and facial expression that he is sorry. Unfortunately, the child who is having difficulty interpreting these cues misses them and jumps to the conclusion that the other kid did it on purpose. This may lead to anger, tears and maybe even aggression.

Here are some ways to help children gain a better understanding of social cues and situations. Start out by connecting how emotions are tied to facial expressions and body language: “When we are mad we tighten our faces, clench our fists, and our bodies feel hot”. You can use photos, books, and your own face to create this connection. Point out how the facial and body expressions and emotions are tied together. Then create ways for the child to practice so she can develop a deeper understanding. You can even make it a game by telling children that they are “detectives” trying to find sad/mad/happy faces around them.

Another way to begin helping children become better “social detectives” is by labeling emotions: “I can tell you are happy because you are smiling and laughing.” “Your friend is frowning. I wonder how he might be feeling?” As children become better at understanding social cues and social situations, they will continue to strengthen their friendships and social interactions.

  • Pair learning social skills with learning how to handle disappointment and big feelings

Making and playing with friends can be emotional! Sometimes we don’t get our way, sometimes friends might hurt our feelings, or accidentally ruin our favorite picture. Teaching children how to handle disappointment and ways to calm down when upset can go a long way in helping a child develop positive ways to handle the ups and downs of friendships. This is especially true when children have experienced trauma because they may already have difficulty controlling their behaviors. Check out our pinterest board to learn some funs ways to introduce these skills.

  • Praise, praise, praise!!

If you want to see more of a behavior, “praise the heck out of it!” Learning social skills is hard and as children try out new skills it is important that we praise even the smallest amount of growth. By giving a child positive praise (see blog about how to give specific praise), children can create a positive image of themselves and their skills which leads to a positive association about the experience. And those are essential components for creating new pathways in the brain!

  • Teaching through books

I love reading books to kids as a way to help them understand socioemotional concepts. Books provide a fun, engaging, and visual way for children to learn about and understand emotions and the importance of friendships. Another bonus is that books can lead into natural discussions about the characters’ feelings and the events leading up to those emotions. This gives children extra practice to build their understanding of social cues and find new ways to handle problems. And it gives you great insight into their thinking.

  • Don’t forget to model

We have said it before, but modeling is one of the best ways to teach children how to interact with others in positive ways. You can ask your child to try to figure out how you are feeling by looking at your cues. You can model sharing and cooperating with your friends and family. And you can talk about your own experiences making friends.

We don’t ever want any child to have to experience traumatic events. But if they have, we can approach them with patience and understanding about how the trauma is likely to have affected their social skills. It is important to remember that when children have problems getting along with others, it is not because they want to be “antisocial” or because they are trying to make others unhappy or angry. They just don’t know how to be appropriately social. By teaching them social skills, we can help them create new, positive experiences that will help them now and in the future!

Resources:

https://www.understood.org/en/friends-feelings/common-challenges/picking-up-on-social-cues/4-types-of-social-cues

Image: © Marcel De Grijs | Dreamstime.com

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Emily Peterson
Emily Peterson is the Co-Clinical supervisor for the KITS program. She has interned at elementary schools and DHS, training with children in the foster care system prior to coming to OSLC. In her free time, Emily enjoys a good laugh, game nights, food and taking walks with her two dachshunds.

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