Saturday, 01 January 2000

Help Your Child Learn Social Skills - Part I

Written by  Ruth Mason

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Do you sometimes wish you could be a magical fly on the wall in your child's school, whispering little tips about appropriate social behavior, helping your kids avoid the pain of being left out of a game or being picked last for the team?

We can't provide you with that magic but we can offer some excellent advice from Martin Seligman, PhD, author of The Optimistic Child (Harper Perennial, 1996.) The book addresses the ways in which parents can encourage their children to develop positive outlooks, how they can help a depressed child, how they can teach their children to more accurately understand and interpret the social events around them.

Seligman claims that children with good social and problem-solving skills make and maintain friends more easily. And he says it is possible for us as parents to teach our children these skills rather than just leaving it up to chance.


Children with poor social skills may tend to misinterpret other children's motives and react quickly and uncritically. Seligman calls this "hot thinking" -- hot and biased instead of cool and thought-out.

In order to get your child to think in a "cool," rather than "hot" way, Seligman suggests teaching your child to slow down his thinking process. You can start by reading the following scenario, from his book, to your child.

"You are standing in line at the drinking fountain. There are five kids behind you, waiting their turn. Two kids at the back of the line are playing around and they bump into the person in front of them. That boy falls into Seth who is standing behind you. Seth bumps into you while you are drinking from the fountain, and you get your face pushed into the water. Now, you didn't see all this happen, because you were drinking the water. All you know for sure is that Seth bumped into you and your face is all wet."

Then, ask your child to be like Sherlock Holmes and make a list of all the reasons why his face might have gotten wet. Explain that the way he handles the situation depends on what he thinks. Tell him that the first step in being an "ace-problem solver" is to "stop and think" before he takes any action. When he finishes making the list -- either verbally or in writing -- ask him what he would do if he believed each reason he listed to be true.


The idea is to help your child replace "hot thoughts" with "cool thoughts." Hot thoughts are those that come to mind immediately. Children who have a lot of hot thoughts believe that when a problem happens between them and someone else, the other person is to blame and did it on purpose. Hot thoughts lead us to react impulsively, before we really understand what happened in a given situation.

Cool thoughts are those that help us consider all the available information in order to figure out what happened. They slow us down where hot thoughts speed us up. Reacting out of hot thoughts often makes matters worse.

To get more practice at differentiating between hot and cool thinking, Seligman suggests reading your child the following scenarios and asking him which are the hot thoughts, which are the cool ones and where he thinks each thought would lead.

  1. Justin is playing soccer at recess and someone kicks the ball and it hits him real hard right in the face. He thinks:

    1. What happened? Was that an accident or is Jonathan trying to start something?
    2. He did that on purpose! I'm gonna get him. He's gonna wish he never messed with me.
  2. Kim leaves three messages for her friend to call her back as soon as she gets in. Kim's friend doesn't call all evening. Kim thinks:

    1. Why isn't she calling me? I wonder if she's mad at me? Or maybe she forgot to listen to their answering machine. Or maybe her brother played the messages and didn't tell her I called.
    2. She's being mean. She's just acting like she doesn't know I called.
  3. Ben is supposed to meet his friend at the mall at 3:30. He waits for half an hour, but his friend doesn't show up. Ben thinks:

    1. Figures. Jonah is such a creep. He's supposed to be my best friend but he's always jerking me around like this. I'm not gonna take this anymore!

    2. b. What's the deal? This really sucks. If he just decided not to come, I'm gonna be really pissed. Maybe he got into trouble or something. I'll call him later to find out what happened.


After your child has practiced identifying hot and cool thoughts, he's ready for the game "hot seat." Tell your child about a problem that might happen to someone his age. Then read him a hot thought someone could have in that situation and ask him to come up with a cool one.

Here are some examples from Seligman -- or you can make up your own:

  1. You arrive at the corner where you are supposed to meet your friends to walk to school. None of them is there. You wait five more minutes, but they still don't come.

    • Your hot thought: They ditched me!
  2. You are waiting in line in a store. The store clerk waits on the man standing behind you before he waits on you.

    • Your hot thought: He hates kids.
  3. You want to play on the soccer team. When you walk onto the field on the first day of practice, you hear all the other kids laugh.

    • Your hot thought: They're making fun of me.
  4. You let your sister borrow a tape that you borrowed from your friend. You tell her that you need it back by 3:00 because you promised to bring it by your friend's house. It's 3:15 and your sister and the tape are nowhere to be found.

    • Your hot thought: She's trying to get me in trouble.

Remember, there are many right answers for each situation. Your goal is to get your child thinking. If she comes up with a hot thought, Seligman writes, ask her how she would act if she believed that thought.

Then help her come up with a cool thought that would allow her to keep an open mind about the problem.


Copyright Ruth Mason, 2000

Last modified on Tuesday, 14 May 2013 14:15
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Ruth Mason

Ruth Mason

Since the birth of her first child, writing about children has been Ruth's hobby, passion and profession. An award-winning journalist, she has published in Parents Magazine, Family Circle, Woman's Day and many other national and local publications. She has worked as a child-care worker, newspaper reporter, 60's activist and farmer. Ruth is married plus three, and is a certified parent educator and infant massage instructor. during the year 1999-2000 she was the director of the WholeFamily Parent Center.

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