Having been interested in social skills for years, I find that I still have questions related to how kids gain social skills. Even more perplexing is what do we do with social skills as adults once we get them…if we get them….and to what degree do we get them? In my search for answers I found some interesting things…..
I was first introduced to Maslow in college. The all important “hierarchy of needs”. It’s common sense but hey, it’s better to just have it reiterated, right? Basically it says that humans on a very basic level need to have their physiological needs met – food, clothing and shelter, in order to advance to higher levels of self-actualization. We progress through levels of safety, social connectedness, self-esteem and self-actualization. OR do we?
I have been honored to work with children from Eastern European orphanages as a therapist. I learned by taking history after history that these children were provided shelter, food and clothing but very, very limited social interaction until they were adopted and brought to the United States. In short, this didn’t work. Many had emotional, physical and developmental delays. Many had restricted their diets to eat only selected foods. They had sensory issues and social difficulty. I realized pretty early on that if the children had been exposed to more social interaction, they may have had more positive development. Knowing that babies are born completely dependent, it appears that “knowing” there is someone to depend on is critically important. Research focused on cortisol levels in these children reflect higher levels of cortisol than the control group, and indicate that the children overall endured stress despite being provided for physically with food, shelter and clothing.
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University echos these understandings, with Toxic Stress and Neglect as top factors that affecting brain architecture. Different levels of toxic stress and neglect create different architecture, with parents are the mediators of the home environment and teachers, coaches and care givers the mediators of the environment outside the home. The centers research shows that if a child has an adult who they can trust and feel secure with when stress enters the environment, and the stress is not chronic, then the child will build neural connections beneficial for development. If the child needs parental or caregiver connection, does not get it, or is repeatedly stressed over the long-term, weather in the home, school or some combination, they will grow under duress, with very different architecture a result.
In reading the book “Social”, by Matthew D. Lieberman a Harvard trained professor at the University of California and one of the foremost authorities in neuroscience, this puzzle of child social development becomes clearer. His research findings pinpoint the dorsal cingulate cortex as the brain center that monitors conflict and notes distress of all things bothersome. In babies it’s the part of the brain activated when a baby is separated from a caregiver and cries to find comfort. It’s the same part that is active when a person experiences physical pain. Most interestingly, the dorsal cingulate is also the part of the brain that is activated when a person experiences social pain.
So I have to ask, did Maslow know about the dorsal cingulate cortex? Maybe his hierarchy would have been a bit different if he had. He might have included social skills as a basic survival need. If so, we as parents, teachers and caregivers need to think social first, along with food, shelter and clothing. We also need to think about our relationships with our children and how we foster connection. We sure do need to feed our children, cloth them and provide shelter, but if we leave at connection and sociality, we are far from fostering the development of whole-hearted human beings that will one day grow into whole-hearted adults.
Brene’ Brown PhD., LMSW has researched whole-hearted living for the last decade and found some interesting trends in how Americans connect with each other. She found that Americans are not comfortable with being vulnerable to what might happen when they truly connect with other adults, be it at home or in the community. She has discovered that adults are self-numbing to vulnerability, with people unwilling to reach out and socially engage with another in a heartfelt way. I am thinking social media doesn’t really count as true social engagement, right? So what examples of socialization are we demonstrating? Do we have what it takes to socialize our children?
On her TED talk Brown further reveals the trend of addictions to ease the numbing effect. From overeating to over-consuming, we get happy in a myriad of ways outside of social interaction. Lieberman has additionally found a statistical correlation between painkillers decreasing physical pain and social pain equally. It makes me wonder are we as a culture really all right? Do we need to join some social clubs or have some friends over for dinner? Maybe we will have to risk vulnerability to get back in tune with our social selves.
It brings me to another question I have always had. Are we taught to be good communicators?” I have always felt that the idea “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt” was really off base. In my practice I saw incidence after incidence of kids being bullied, both by other kids and their own parents, with resulting developmental difficulties. Interestingly the kids were physically being taken care of, often from very affluent communities. It was the reports of bullies verbally assaulting them, parents dis-respecting each other or the kids in the waiting room, and tales of yelling in the home week after week, that made me guess that our words are super important in the development of our children’s brain architecture. I concluded that chronic ill communication can create ill architecture. I have seen it time and time again.
In Patrician Even’s work in verbal abuse, she echos that verbal abuse is rarely identified, but can be detrimental to a family unit. It can hurt spouses and kids and create cycles of verbal abuse in generations to come. In reading these books, I identify abuse much easier now, in situations where I would never have suspected it. The information is important for parents, teachers and caregivers alike as chances are we know someone, child or adult, who needs the information. Her books are illuminating as to how much we as a culture have forgotten how to communicate.
In my research into these areas of socialization, I find that there is much still to learn. But I know that connection and communication is paramount in our lives as adults and those of our children. If we don’t take the risk of being vulnerable to true relationships, what are we risking for our children’s future? Words connect us and affect us. So at the very least, let’s be kind.