Spoiler Alert: Positive relationships make all the difference as our children grow into adults. We know that during a child’s early learning, family members, friends, and teachers all help kids develop meaningful social skills. But tweens need to continue to learn and strengthen their social, emotional, and behavioral skills in ever more complex situations. Social and emotional development doesn’t stop in elementary school. In fact, I really love this one surprising way to help tweens social and emotional development in a way that will be fun for the whole family!
What Is Social Emotional Learning?
Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success.
People with strong social-emotional skills are better able to cope with everyday challenges and benefit academically, professionally, and socially. From effective problem-solving to self-discipline, from impulse control to emotion management and more, SEL provides a foundation for positive, long-term effects on kids, adults, and communities.What Is Social Emotional Learning?
And here’s what makes me really nuts! Once children are past elementary school (and even more frequently pre-school), we assume that they have had all the social and emotional learning that they need. They’ve outgrown it. They’re too old.
Let me just say this, if I had a nickel for every adult I meet who had the emotional maturity of an elementary, middle, or high school kid…
The challenges facing today’s adolescents are really tough, new situations that they never faced as younger kids – bullying, peer pressure, sexting, social media, risk taking, and more.
What Can Happen When Our Tweens Don’t Have Coping Skills
If you’ve been following me here for a bit, you may have noticed that I’ve become quite concerned about stress in tweens and young teens. I’ve been writing a series about tweens and stress – identifying it, managing it, and pushing through it when they need to.
My world view tells me that kids of this age are waaaaaay too young to have this much stress, anxiety, depression, and especially suicidal thoughts.
But, ya’ll…. Look at this:
Why We Need To Actively Nurture Social And Emotional Development
Research indicates that focusing on social-emotional needs can help reduce anxiety, suicide, substance abuse, depression, and impulsive behavior in kids. This concentration can also help to increase test scores, attendance, and prosocial behaviors such as kindness, personal awareness, and empathy.
Positive social skills give children viable tools to regulate their emotions and make good choices about their behavior. Teaching kids coping skills, mindfulness, effective communication skills, and self-regulation gives them the resources needed to address various social, emotional, and mental health challenges that hinder learning.Enhancing Mental Health By Teaching SEL
Let me just repeat the most stunning part of that. …focusing on social-emotional needs can help reduce anxiety, suicide, substance abuse, depression, and impulsive behavior…
Who doesn’t want that? And it gets better – discovering our social and emotional needs is something we can teach our kids!
Research on the brain and learning is revealing how we can help students trigger their Social Emotional Learning competencies: self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.Marilee Sprenger
So if we want to avoid these devastating emotional consequences, we need to be teaching coping skills.
Tweens Going Through Social Development Are Looking For More
Think of this period of your child’s social development as “the more time.” It’s a veritable time of social explosion!
If you are looking for an ice breaker, something to help you understand some of the stressors that your tween is facing – try this free role-playing game. It’s a set of beautiful (IMHO) cards that present situations for role playing (more about this below) with your child. Get this beautiful set right here:
In order to develop social skills, tweens and teens are seeking out experiences to practice the skills they have already learned and to build on that foundation. They are likely to be looking for more new experiences, more time with friends, more independence, more responsibility, more input into what happens in their lives, more questions, more risk taking, more critical thinking about their own values, more wacky trends (think hair, clothes, nails, etc.), and on and on.
Tweens Are Going Through Emotional Changes That Can Be Frightening
At the same time they are socially putting themselves out there more, and more, and more – their inner world is filled with uncertainty, doubts, and fears.
- Self Consciousness
- Sensitivity to Others
- Moods & Feelings
- Decision Making
Will the other kids like me? What if they post something mean about me on social media? How do I act around this person? I feel so angry, and I have no idea why; this is scary. Why is my body doing this? What if my period starts in front of people? Will my friends laugh if I forget to wear my bra? What if that pretty girl is watching and I don’t make this shot? Why does my voice sound funny at the most inappropriate moments?
Mindfulness is just one of the coping skills that we can teach our kids to develop a healthy sense of self, to learn about their moods and feelings and to show sensitivity toward others.
Parental Presence Supports Social and Emotional Development
Dr. Gabor Mate is a world renown expert on stress and child development. He’s concerned about a lack of parental presence and the fact that without parental presence, children will chose to model themselves after their peers:
We’ve deprived the kids of the parental presence for the most part. And the child’s brain can’t handle an attachment void where there’s no attachment figure. And in the absence of the parent or the nurturing adult, the child will fill that void with the peer group. Now kids become far more peer attached than is healthy for them and their peers become their models and their mentors, and templates for how to be, how to walk and how to talk. And as that happens, the kids push away from their parents because they’re more minded to belong to the peer group which has different values from the parents. And the kid’s brain can’t handle that competition so the brain of the child will actually chose the peer group over the parent group.Dr. Gabor Mate
Connection. Presence. Acceptance.
Our tweens need to know that their connection to us and our love for them is never broken or conditioned upon anything that they may do or experience.
Home, parents, family…these are places of refuge, acceptance, and safety. Always.
Want A Safe Way To Explore Social and Emotional Issues?
I bet you’ve noticed that people become emboldened online to say things that they might not otherwise say in person. We all have. People usually behave differently online in one of two ways. They either become meaner, or they open up and become more vulnerable. Why is this?
It’s because they are able to detach and feel safe behind the mask of the internet. Similarly, children of all ages can detach themselves from the emotions they are feeling and process them in a safe and exploratory space with a puppet.
Adolescents can use puppets to experiment with new personalities; explore new ways of communicating; and test out feeling and responding to the emotions of others in any given situation. In other words, the puppets provide a safe space for the social and emotional development of children at all ages.
For example, when elementary students speak in front of their class, pressure from peers or from their teachers can feel intimidating.
When puppets are provided however, these shy students can speak via the puppet, shifting the audience’s attention away from them and onto the puppet…students can gradually grow more confident with public speaking.Puppets Talk, Children Listen
Puppets. So Why Not Use Puppets With Adolescents?
The advantages of using a puppet as an alter ego don’t stop there. In upper elementary and middle school, puppets provide kids with an opportunity to explore various communication techniques. They can do this with less risk. Then they can apply the techniques that feel the most appropriate to them in regular conversation.
And here’s the best part – the advantages for a child’s social and emotional development of working with puppets as an alter ego don’t stop there. If you engage in “puppet conversations,” with your kids, they feel less like they’re talking to a parent and are likely to feel more comfortable discussing difficult topics.
Children in latter grades can use puppets in a more profound way. Puppets can help break down barriers and encourage students to discuss very difficult issues such as bullying, abuse, drugs, and cultural and physical differences, to name a few. Many students are very uncomfortable with deeply personal topics and puppets can be used to lighten the mood.
…puppets “allow kids to express issues or concerns with a ‘mask’ on,” hiding behind the puppets, but still talking about the issues on hand—literally and figuratively. Puppets can empower students and assure them that they can discuss difficult issues without being singled out or put on the spot…the puppets also act as an outlet because students can use them to express things that may pain them, or share things without feeling vulnerable.”Puppets Talk, Children Listen
So, now we’ve talked a little bit about using puppets for role playing – here’s another chance to grab that free game I mentioned above – use this game with a puppet (or two) to get some conversations going that will prepare children for dealing with difficult situations as they arise.
This is huge! The options are endless to use this tool to help your kids explore difficult topics and emotions with your kids. Here’s another fun family tool to use to help your kids open up about difficult issues:
What This Could Look Like At Home
You can use puppets with each sibling role playing better ways to handle sibling disputes.
You can use puppets to role play scary things – like asking a girl to the dance!
Use puppet role play to further conversations about nuanced interactions in movie scenes.
You can use puppets to have touchy conversations about, say…sex.
You could role play a bullying situation.
DON’T FORGET TO PIN THIS SO YOU CAN COME BACK LATER!