• September 2010

Child Therapist Cathi Cohen Helps Parents, Kids Improve Social Skills

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor & Publisher
Be Inkandescent Magazine

Does your child have a tough time making and keeping friends? It’s more common than you may think, according to licensed clinical social worker and certified group psychotherapist Cathi Cohen, L.C.S.W., author of Raise Your Child’s Social IQ.

The book is based on data Cathi collected while working with children, adolescents, and adults in a clinical setting since 1984, including this comment from an 8-year-old who told her: “I feel like I live on my own planet, and everyone else lives on this one.”

Cathi explains: “What he was describing was his feeling of loneliness and disconnection from other kids his age. Think about it. Children are around other kids all day — in the classroom, during recess, on the school bus, and at extracurricular activities. For a child lacking in social skills, these occasions can be pressure-filled and isolating. Going to school becomes something to dread, and friendships — if they exist — may offer more pain than solace.”

That’s why Cathi felt compelled to spend her career reaching out to these children.

About In Step

Cathi has become a leading expert in the field of social skills training for children.

“Early in my career as a social worker, I recognized the power of treating relationship problems through group therapy,” she says. It was this interest and expertise that led her to create the Stepping Stones Social Skills Group Therapy Program in 1990.

The success of this program led to the formation in 1995 of In Step, a comprehensive mental health practice.

Since then, she has completed two more books, Stepping Stones to Building Friendships: A Guide for Camp Counselors and Outnumbered, Not Outsmarted: An A to Z Guide for Working With Kids and Teens in Groups.

In addition to writing numerous articles and conducting regular workshops for parents, educators, and mental health professionals, Cathi has appeared on radio and television programs about the mental health needs of children and their families. Cathi graduated summa cum laude from Tufts University before receiving her M.S. degree from Columbia University School of Social Work.

The value of raising your child’s social IQ

“Studies of successful people demonstrate that it’s good social skills, not top grades, that are most strongly associated with success,” Cathi explains. “Some children are born with good social instincts, but many children are not.”

The good news, she notes, is that social skills can be taught. In her book, Cathi breaks down the process to 10 steps, each addressing a new goal that when mastered will equip each child with the skills necessary to move to the next chapter.

“A quiz will help you determine if your child has already mastered the skills covered in each chapter,” she says. “It’s important to keep in mind as you go through the book that your child will develop skills at his or her own pace.”

Patience is critical — on the part of the children and the parents, Cathi points out. If you can’t check off every skill as “accomplished” by the end of the chapter, don’t take it as a sign that your child isn’t making progress. “The checklists are offered only as a guideline.”

Also, introduce the skills one at a time. “The shotgun approach will surely overwhelm both you and your child,” she advises. “It may easily take your child a month or more to acquire the skills laid out in a single chapter. You are learning the skill just as your child is, and it takes time to integrate the material.”

10 Steps to Social Success

Below you’ll find a basic outline of each chapter. Each one contains many more details and much more advice, but this will give you a taste for developing an effective strategy.

Step 1: Getting Started Talk to your child about the need for social skills, and introduce the “skill of the week.” If your child frequently interrupts conversations, suggest that she do it 50% less this week. If your child is hesitant to join in group activities, the goal might be for him to play with neighborhood kids once this week. If teasing is the issue, suggest that your child practice one way to deal with being teased this week. Cathi warns: “Remember, don’t shoot too high. It’s unrealistic to expect your child to stop interrupting, make a new friend, or handle teasing completely in one week. Choose a goal that your child will be able to accomplish.”

Step 2: Joining In Ask yourself the following questions to determine if your child might need help learning how to join a group: Does your child easily approach a new group of children? Does your child wait for an appropriate break in the conversation before saying something? Does your child join a conversation smoothly by asking a question that relates to what is going on? Does your child look others directly in the eye when speaking? Does your child stop and check out a group before joining? Can your child go with the flow of a group? If you answered yes to all these questions, you can skip this chapter.

Step 3: Communicating and Conversing In this chapter, parents will help their children learn to make consistent eye contact with others, develop active listening skills, ask appropriate questions when there is a pause in the conversation, say things that express interest in the other person, comfortably maintain a conversation, respect personal body space, and use a clear and pleasant tone.

Step 4: Reading Social Signals Empathy is a key to having good social skills, but the ability to feel and think what another feels and thinks requires observing verbal and nonverbal cues. In this chapter, children learn to concentrate on what a person is saying, understand what is being communicated by someone’s behavior, imagine the feelings of another, and then respond appropriately.

Step 5: Raising Self-Esteem “Children with little self-assurance will make different social choices than children who believe in themselves,” says Cathi, who in this chapter juxtaposes the qualities of kids with high self-esteem (a relaxed balanced posture, good hygiene, and the ability to accept rejection and critical feedback) versus those with low self-esteem (a tendency to blame others for their own actions, to get frustrated, and to brag and a need to be liked by everyone). Cathi offers eight steps to help your child become a more confident person.

Step 6: Coping With Teasing “Teasing is one of the most painful experiences of childhood,” Cathi realizes. “Whether a child is being teased or doing the teasing, he will suffer greatly in his ability to sustain friendships and other peer relationships.” In this chapter she helps parents see the signs and determine if they have a “teaser” or a “teasee” and then offers insight into what to do about it.

Step 7: Managing Stress If you child has a rapid heartbeat, headaches, stomach problems, a poor appetite, nightmares, trouble sleeping, or irritability — he or she may exhibiting signs of stress. “As our lives become more hectic, our children often become caught up in the same frantic pace,” Cathi explains, noting that stress makers may include being over-scheduled, having too much homework, being yelled at, and feeling left out at school. In this chapter, she offers tips on how to lower the stress level for everyone in the house.

Step 8: Solving Social Problems “Children often have trouble thinking of several possible solutions to problems,” Cathi says. “They get stuck in reacting automatically using the same approach to every situation, even though it may not be the best approach. Sometimes they react with aggression, not thinking about the consequences. Other times they get frustrated when an ineffective solution doesn’t work.” In this chapter, she provides a problem-solving quiz and tips on how to cope if your child needs some assistance.

Step 9: Managing Anger In this chapter, Cathi helps parents understand what pushes a child’s buttons, recognize how the body expresses anger, and appreciate that anger is a normal emotion. Parents will learn to help their children find healthy ways to express anger, master positive self-talk, decrease aggressive behavior, and find physical outlets for angry feelings.

Step 10: Putting It All Together In this final review chapter, Cathi offers additional resources and ideas for what you have accomplished — and what you might need to do in the future to keep your child on track. She also provides resources for parents whose children have specific issues, including ADHD, nonverbal learning disabilities, and Asperger’s Syndrome.

She concludes: “Raising your child’s social IQ is not a simple task. The more you incorporate social skills practice into your child’s daily life, the more proficient your child will be at using these skills.”

For more information about Cathi and In Step, visit www.insteppc.com.

Click here to buy Raising Your Child’s Social IQ.