Social skills: skills for happiness

From all the species that populate our planet, humans are considered the most sociable one.

We are born with the necessary equipment and social skills to call out the attention of those who surround us. Crying, eye tracking, smiles and mumbles, assist babies in the process of seeking an “other”. In the beginning, that other is wanted only as a source of nutrition and basic necessity coverage but after a brief time frame, that “other” is sought for contact and the sole pleasure that comes from it.

At a very young age, just after birth, all of us star building our first and most meaningful relationship. Craig (1997) states that this first bond that ties a human being to an “other”, is the one constructed between a child and its mother or primary caregiver. We socialize from the very start of our existence and there is such an enormous amount of evidence regarding this matter that we could easily fill up several libraries.

Nevertheless, there comes a time in which we, as social beings, need more than that first meaningful relationship. Being able to include ourselves in a group of peers that holds our same characteristics, cognitive level, verbalization skills and even size, allows us to reach key learning aspects about what is right and wrong, what is permitted and prohibited and what we enjoy and dislike.

At the age of 2, 3 or 4 years, socializing with our peers is what allows us to learn that if we bite, it hurts and can have painful consequences for us (if the other infant chooses to do the same to us); that if we lend a toy to a peer, he or she smiles; that there are specific times and rules to carry out activities and we also learn to interiorize and interpret how others react.

The early childhood stage holds an enormous value, as it allows the development and learning possibilities of a wide variety of skills: The skill to make friends, to start a conversation, to empathize, to acknowledge when others succeed and compliment them on their achievements… Learning theses skills translates into the internalization of a very important dexterity: Being able to interact with others.

Our children study lots of different subjects at school, however the attention given to the adequate acquisition of social competences is not (at all) what it should be. These competences facilitate the establishment of a healthy and positive interaction with others while maintaining regard for one’s self.

Rinn Markle (1.979) clarifies in a practical manner what having social skills implies: “The expression -social skills- includes a repertoire of verbal and non verbal behaviors through which children include other individuals responses (peers, parents, siblings…) in their interpersonal context. Such repertoire acts as a mechanism in which children actively influence their environment obtaining, suppressing or avoiding desired or non desired consequences in their social sphere… If they are able to succeed in obtaining desired consequences and are able to avoid or escape the undesirable ones, they are considered as children with social skills”.

If we take into account the notion that the basis of human existence is essentially social, the skills we socialize through, will be of great value in our day to day journey. Having the capacity of relating to and interacting with others acquires a special significance during adolescence and adulthood, mainly because of the importance of having a context to use for reference and the need of relating to others. The adequate acquisitions of the competences that we need to socialize and interact with those who surround us, holds the key to a warm and more fulfilling life experience. Every day we come across more people who find it hard to feel comfortable and secure when it comes to interacting with others.

Many also struggle with assertiveness (being able to express ones own wants and needs while taking others into account) and also, being able to say no. Others find themselves vulnerable and unprotected because they do not possess the tools to defend themselves against unfair scenarios or attacks. Equipping our children with social competences means that we are providing them with resources that will influence directly they way in which they interact with the world. The resulting experience from that interaction will echo in their self-esteem, sense of belonging, self-worth and of course, their happiness.

Because of the underlying importance of socialization and the dexterities in involves, paying attention to red flags in this specific sphere is extremely relevant. Not speaking about peers and the anecdotes in which they take part in; receiving a small amount of birthday celebrations invitations; experiencing difficulties when it comes to separating themselves from parents or caregivers in parks or child populated scenarios, and therefore not seeking interaction with other children and actively verbalizing complaints regarding their peers, are some of the signals we can encounter. If we come across such situations, intervening is necessary. Sometimes by seeking the support of a mental health professional that works with child groups to assist them in the “making of” necessary changes for healthier social interaction.

Learning social competences should always be accompanied by the construction and development of an adequate emotional intelligence. In 1983 Howard Gardner addressed the emotional intelligence matter in his theory of multiple intelligences, distinguishing between two of them: the interpersonal one (which refers to the capability of understanding the intentions, motivations and desires of others) and the intrapersonal one (that allows us to understand and appreciate ourselves, our own feelings, desires, fears and motivations). If we can help our children know themselves, be aware of what they feel and understand how to manage their emotions, they will be emotionally more available to connect to and understand others, without leaving aside their own necessities and desires.

Educating children on social skills and emotional intelligence arises continuous effort and a big challenge. However, the positive repercussions that such education posses, reflect in the possibility of truly being able to enjoy interacting with others, and he who is capable of enjoying, is also capable of experiencing happiness.

Every Friday, Sinews MTI offers a social skills workshop that works on personal development by carring out exercises on emotional intelligence hence, encouraging social skills.

Written by Rocío Fernández Cosme, child and adolescent psychologist.

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