When my daughters were little, we liked to eat breakfast at the Squirrel Café, a local eatery. We would sit at the round table, 5-year-old Julia perched on a booster seat, and 3-year-old Anna in a highchair. I would read the kids' menu aloud, “They have chocolate chip pancakes, or you could have waffles.”
“Waffles! Waffles!” they would shout, blond ponytails bobbing.
“OK, when the server comes, look at her, smile, and say, ‘May I please have the waffles.’”
Five minutes later, the server arrived, asking me what my daughters wanted for breakfast. I would look at my girls and say, “They can tell you.”
Julia, my confident girl, would beam her sunny smile and declare, “I would like the waffles, please!”
Shy little Anna would peer up at the waitress, and smile bashfully. In her high-pitched voice, she would pipe, “I would like the waffles please.”
The server would beam back, momentarily enchanted. “Well yes, you got it!”
Please. Thank you. Excuse me. I’m sorry. These phrases grease the wheels of social interaction. When there is friction, these phrases loosen the tension. But there is more to social skills than a few magic sentences. (This is the 5th and final part of a series on resilience skills, represented by the mnemonic, G.O.A.L.S. G is for Gratitude, O is for Optimism. A is for Active Coping . L is for Love. And S, our final discussion, S is for Social Skills.)
Resilient people tend to be socially adept, able to handle complexity, able to make and keep connections with others. For most of us, social skills form with a combination of modeling and coaching. Like my daughters, little kids watch their parents engage in back and forth conversation, taking turns, and listening. Parents teach their children how to listen, wait their turn, how to make eye contact, and politely ask for what they want.
So many things can go wrong. Perhaps their mother is depressed, despondent, and rarely speakss. Perhaps their parents fight frequently, modeling yelling and name calling instead of respectful dialogue. Some kids (and some parents) are on the spectrum, making social skills more difficult to acquire. Perhaps some parents are indulgent, neglecting to nudge their children into appropriate behavior. It is, after all, much easier to just order the waffles for your kids, instead of giving the tedious instructions on how to speak politely to a server. Still, most kids do develop basic social skills, either from their family, from other adults, from school, or even TV.
If you feel that your social skills could be better, the good news is that social skills can be taught and learned, whether you are a child or an adult. I have had adult clients, who were diagnosed in their 40s with high-functioning autism. Part of their therapeutic work has been improving their social skills. The real challenge has been on my end, learning to break down the components of social interaction into small, explainable, repeatable bites, e.g. 1) make eye contact 2) smile, 3) say “hello” 4) say “how are you?” 5) wait for the answer. 6) show an interest in the answer, etc. People with social deficits can learn better social skills, with coaching. Social skills may not have developed intuitively, but they can still be learned, and once put into practice, they will be reinforced by positive responses from others.
This resilience series has focused on five common elements of resilience: Gratitude, Optimism, Active coping, Love, and Social skills (G.O.A.L.S. for short). It is important, and fascinating, to notice how these multiple factors interact, affect each other, and form different possible outcomes.
Consider the following example: a brilliant boy is born to educated parents, who are well-meaning, but narcissistic. This boy is sensitive and introspective, and he does not socialize easily. He is often lonely and sad, lacking support and parental attention. Although he is polite, he doesn’t make close friends until high school. He tends toward serious depression and resists help. When he is 17, his parents divorce and he is left to take care of himself, with minimal parental supervision. At the age of 19, in despair, he takes his life.
Now here is a different example: a girl is born to brilliant parents, who mean well, but are self-absorbed. She does have an attentive older brother, who looks out for her. At the age of 4, she is badly burned in a fire, leaving her permanently disfigured. She is separated from her family for months at a time. However, she is friendly and cheerful, with good social skills, and she attracts support from her doctors and nurses, as well as ongoing care from her brother. Despite being bullied badly in school, she makes lifelong friends, who appreciate her cheerful nature, her optimism, and gratitude.
The first example is my brother Marc; the second example is me. All my life I have worked to understand why my brother is dead and I am alive. If you were to look at us, you would have predicted otherwise. He was the brilliant first born of gifted parents; I was the smart-enough second born, massively disfigured to boot. Anyone would have bet on Marc to be the successful adult and hoped that I might manage to survive.
Instead, he is dead from suicide, and I am here, living a pretty darn good life. Learning about resilience helped me understand this central mystery of my life.
My brother and I were born to the same parents and raised in the same environment. For myself, my natural cheery nature (optimism) attracted support from others (love) which helped me develop even better social skills. With support, I was able to learn how to actively cope with my problems. For my brother, despite his frank genius and kind-hearted nature, this did not happen. Without hope and support, he drifted toward a dark path, culminating in his tragic death.
Resilience is not about intelligence (although it helps). It is not about privilege or financial means (although they help too). Any of us can become more resilient and any of us can help those we love become more resilient as well. Writing this series, my hope is to help you see areas in which you too are resilient, and perhaps also areas in which you could improve.
This series identifies some key aspects to leading a resilient life that, when embraced, can yield powerful results for you. Do you need to sharpen your social skills? Be a better listener? Say “I’m sorry” more often? Those are achievable skills, and you can learn them. Do you need to cultivate gratitude? Could you be more upbeat? Are you an active problem-solver? Do you maintain your relationships? All these skills can enhance the quality of your life going forward. Consider ways you can build them in yourself. And If you need help, seek out helpers.
Hang in there. You can do it.