Helping your child develop healthy behaviors and understand the social world around them is an important part of being a parent. Throughout your child’s development, you will have opportunities to build a foundation that can help your child experience healthy growth. This established foundation could, then, influence the way they treat others as they move forward in life. Instilling in your child a good understanding of socially acceptable behaviors could enhance their ability to be a healthy communicator and engage in positive interactions with others. However, there will be times when your child will make social mistakes during their interactions with others.
Social mistakes refer to minor missteps that individuals make when they communicate with others. These mistakes can, oftentimes, be easily fixed or addressed, but they may cause ourselves and those around us some embarrassment or discomfort. Because children are just learning how to socialize in positive and effective ways, they are more prone to making social mistakes. For example, a child who has been taught to be honest may not have the understanding or forethought to not offer negative or unflattering thoughts or comments on someone’s weight or appearance. When these types of mishaps occur, adults can gently address the blunder, help the child understand what socially appropriate norms are and how to use them, and encourage the child to engage with others in a more positive way.
So, how can we, as parents, help our children learn how to navigate social mistakes and learn from them? The following are some ideas and/or strategies that we can use as we talk to our children about their social interactions. Included in each of these considerations are some reflections that may help you lead your child through these situations.
Separate our feelings from our child’s needs.
When a social slip occurs, we, as parents, need to make sure we are taking care of our child’s needs and not communicating our own thoughts and worries. Consider a time when you had to set your own feelings aside when your child behaved in a way that caused you to have negative emotions such as anger or embarrassment.
- What was the emotion you were feeling at the time?
- Example: You felt embarrassed when your child made a comment about someone’s weight and others heard.
- What was your response to your child at that moment?
- What are some approaches you can take to help make these positive teaching moments?
- Example: You may respond, in the moment, to your child with a comment like, “Everyone’s bodies are different, and we do not always need to point out differences.”
Mistakes reflect the process of growth.
Everyone makes mistakes; it’s an important part of learning. Think of some of the mistakes your child has made recently.
- What are some of the mistakes your child has recently made?
- Example: Your child asked everyone in her classroom to their birthday party except one girl.
- How did you help your child learn from these mistakes?
- Which mistakes were you able to turn into teaching moments?
Make difficult conversations “normal.”
Having difficult conversations in a positive way can tell your child that they can talk to you about anything. Consider times when your child has asked you difficult or uncomfortable questions.
- What are some of the challenging topics your child has asked you about?
- Example: Your child asked why your neighbors only have one old car?
- Did you respond honestly, calmly, and objectively to all these questions?
- Were there questions that you answered in a less than honest way? If so, how, or why?
Model how to solve problems, even minor ones.
Especially when they are young, your child will look to you to understand how to react to situations. Consider times when you have been experiencing negative emotions and have had to interact with your child.
- What happened in those moments?
- Example: Your child is present when you and your partner’s conversation begins to involve strong, possibly negative emotions.
- What were some actions you took that helped you behave in a positive way?
- What are some things you can do to continue modeling good behavior to your child?
- Example: You and your partner refrain from raising your voices and focus on solving the problem rather than blaming each other.
Use open-ended questions to create dialogue.
Sometimes, just letting your child talk about events or their ideas is a great way to have meaningful conversations with them. Think of times when open-ended questions have helped you have a meaningful discussion with your child.
- What did your child say that made you ask an open-ended question?
- Example: Your child mentioned that it was fun playing with Brad in the pool even though Brad uses a wheelchair, so you ask, “Why would you think it would not be fun to play with Brad?”
- In what ways did your child, or yourself, grow from the conversation?
- How can you make these conversations happen more frequently?
Prioritize the process over the product.
Children need to understand that their decisions and actions will produce an outcome or consequence, and that outcome or consequence can be good or bad. Consider times when you helped your child realize a deeper understanding of their decision making.
- How did you help your child start to think a little more about what was happening?
- Example: Your child causes a classmate to cry by making a comment about the way a classmate talks.
- Was your child able to understand how their thoughts and actions created an outcome?
- How can you continue to help develop their understanding of this?
- Example: You can explain that pointing out people’s differences in public can make them upset.
Respect the need for privacy.
There may be times that you are in an environment where having a full discussion with your child is not possible or appropriate. Consider a time that this happened to you.
- What did you say in the moment to help your child understand this time or place was not appropriate for a discussion?
- Example: During their sibling’s piano recital your child begins to loudly exclaim how bored they are. You take your child aside, if possible, and tell them you are there to support their sibling and you can talk about their thoughts and feelings after you get home from the event.
- Was your child able to connect with the event when you had a chance to talk to them in private?
Engage in regular self-care.
To be a better parent or caregiver, you might want to try to practice some level of self-care.
- What are some of the things that you currently do to take care of yourself?
- Example: Finding brief moments in the day to write in your journal.
- Are there changes that you could make to help yourself practice better self-care?
- Example: Trying to, go to bed earlier so you have time to read a book or magazine that you enjoy.
- Is there a way to practically make this happen?
- Example: Starting bedtime routines 15 minutes earlier in the evening
As a parent or caregiver, you have opportunities to help your child develop good communication skills. Having good communication skills will enhance your child’s ability to engage in healthy relationships as they grow. Talking to your child about social mistakes can help them understand how to minimize hurtful behavior, develop social skills, and be a good communicator as they move forward in life. Furthermore, learning these lessons, while young, can help improve your child’s social skills and overall well-being.
To learn more about harmful behaviors and other parenting topics, be sure to check out Thrive’s online resources, including the upcoming supplemental parenting module, Harmful Behaviors: Recognize. Respond. Repair.
Partially adapted from
Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness at Penn State. (n.d.). Harmful behaviors: Recognize.
Respond. Repair. [Thrive Initiative]. https://parenting.lms.militaryfamilies.psu.edu/