How to Help Your Child Build Social Skills and Friendships This Summer

Experts agree that nothing is more important for lifelong success than effective social skills. We share tips for using this summer to practice those important skills.

For some children, social interactions are challenging. In addition to any individual social differences a child might have, the pandemic’s disruption robbed all kids of appropriate and significant social opportunities. Just think about the first time you re-emerged and realized you needed to dust off your own social skills. It was awkward for most of us, even if we’ve had a lifetime of successful experiences.

Social skills are so important for lifelong success, says Ellie Badesch, a 20-year veteran at The Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School (the O-School) in Chicago and Director of the O-School’s summer program.

“We think of social skills as the building blocks for developing and maintaining healthy relationships. Effective social skills allow young people to connect with their peers and with adults,” she says.

Children with autism and developmental delays often find that social interactions don’t come naturally, and they need additional support in order to master social skills. “Verbal and nonverbal communication may be difficult to understand, and more subtle social cues are often hard for them to interpret,” Badesch explains.

Kids who experience anxiety can lose confidence in their ability to communicate and build relationships, so they avoid reaching out to others. “What we find is that when they lose the opportunities to practice social skills, it can snowball into a deficit,” she says.

Fortunately, with practice, children can regain lost skills and learn new ones. Summer is the perfect time to try out new social settings and help your child practice their skills.

This summer, help your child build social skills

“Summer activities and camps provide a fun and joyful environment where kids aren’t managing the stress of the academic school year,” she says. “In a more relaxed environment, anxious children can feel more comfortable to take healthy risks and try something new.”

Summer, in other words, is all about making friends and spending time in settings conducive to social experiences.

The age of your child may determine what you gravitate toward, but any event that offers some sort of structure will provide what Badesch calls “practice hours” where kids can spend time connecting with peers.

Family picnics and reunions, summer programs at your local school and religious events are all great choices, so don’t hold back. “For children who struggle more, find activities that provide additional adult support to facilitate the peer dynamics, rather than expecting them to manage it themselves,” Badesch suggests.

help-your-child-build-social-skills-and-friendships
Photo credit: The Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School

Don’t be surprised if your child seems challenged by this. “Discomfort is OK and is part of growth. Encourage your child to understand that no one has control over every aspect of a social situation,” she says.

Try a variety of activities knowing that the more experience your child gains, the more they will be able to respond in socially appropriate ways. The goal is to take skills they may learn in basketball and then transfer them to chess club, for instance.

The confidence piece is very important, Badesch says. “If you get pushback, let them know you are there to support them and assist them through it. Their motivation will take off once they see the successes they are having,” she says.

Summer camp is a must for developing social skills

Summer camps offer a valuable opportunity to practice relationship skills — and, when the fit is right, campers can build lifelong memories.

“Summer camp is a short period of time, but offers so much intensity in terms of socializing, recreation, joy and fun,” Badesch says. “When well run, even a two-week camp can create a sense of community where young people can feel safe and respected and feel comfortable trying new things. They can make new friends, which creates a ripple effect of confidence that they can utilize in the next school year.”

To increase the chance for summer camp success, consider your child’s interests and get their input. Don’t be afraid to step a little outside their comfort zone, especially if you see the opportunity for social growth.

The Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School offers Camp O, a two-week summer day camp that is specifically designed for kids ages 6-15 who may need more support than they’d get at a traditional summer camp.

“We have the counselors to support kids who struggle with social-emotional skills. Camp O is designed to ensure their success. Our trained counselors facilitate peer interactions and group dynamics so campers can practice these skills in a safe, structured environment,” Badesch says.

While all summer camps provide opportunities to practice and develop social-emotional skills, Camp O takes the experience to a deeper level by zeroing in on very specific, important skills like flexible thinking, “me versus we” thinking, expected versus unexpected behavior — and many other social concepts that some campers struggle with — and embedding those concepts into activities throughout the day.

“This extra structure and support allow our campers to feel like they don’t have to do it all on their own. We offer training wheels to help them build that confidence and experience the joy of success in a variety of social-emotional situations,” Badesch says.

Camp O is offered by the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, an internationally recognized school for bright, creative students to thrive in an environment that balances academics with robust therapeutic supports.

Content sponsored by the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School. Learn more at oschool.org.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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