Coaching Conversation Skills

What to do when your child does not know how to have conversations with peers, even sabotaging conversations by making silly or unrelated remarks.

By Dr. Steven Richfield, Child Psychologist

Most children develop age appropriate social skills by observing, asking questions, and interacting with a wide range of people who allow them to build a conversational repertoire to draw upon. For a variety of reasons, some children lag behind in this process. It may be due to temperamental factors such as shyness or behavioral reasons such as decreased self-control. Problems may be displayed with greeting, conversation building, lack of self-correction, timing, boundary violation, context, or some other social error. But whatever the source, children can be coached to develop the proper skills if parents have the tools at their disposal. Consider the following points as critical to your child’s “social tool kit:”

Offer a commonsense template to guide their efforts. It’s hard for many children to grasp the shadowy intricacies of social skills unless adults explain it in simple terms. Consider the following opening, “I’ve noticed that sometimes it’s hard for you to get conversations going with other kids or that things go wrong. I can help with that. There’s three steps that are involved; greetings-that-go-somewhere, common ground, and deeper discussion.” From this point parents can explain how such greetings are like knocking on a neighbor’s door with a purpose in mind. Saying “hi” is probably not enough, but saying, “Hi, how was practice yesterday?” gets the conversation going. Common ground is where two people’s interest or experience intersect so that a subject can sustain continued discussion. Soccer or reading are common ground subjects if the two people have a mutual interest. The trick is to help your child steer the discussion to a common ground subject by using the clues available to them, i.e., soccer cleats, books. Deeper discussion is when there’s a sharing of one’s own feelings or opinions about a common ground subject. For example, one child may offer that they didn’t like a particular book and this allows the other child to explain their dissatisfaction with a book they recently read.

Explain the importance of “conversation keepers.” I use this term to describe any connective phrase that starts or keeps conversations going in the right direction. Sometimes these phrases are simply an empathic restatement of what the other person said while other times they are bridges to common ground or deeper discussion. Here are some examples; “You must have really felt worried when you thought you lost your keys...” “That reminds me of...” “Remember when you were telling the class about...” “Guess what?...” “Can you believe that happened?...” “You must have been wondering what was going on...” Such phrases keep conversations going by plugging up talking gaps and demonstrating that the speaker observes and understands events.

Emphasize the importance of other communication tools. Eye contact, gestures, facial expression, body posture and proximity, and movement are all important to social skills. Likewise, tone and clarity of voice should be mentioned. One way to identify these factors is for the two of you to watch television programs that depict child actors with various social skill strengths and weaknesses. Gently point out to your child how a certain character compares to them, and suggest how they might improve by keeping certain ideas in mind.

Use role-play to practice their improved skills. Provided you have succeeded in having a non-threatening discussion with your child about these issues many children are willing to practice with a parent. Pretend you are a similar age peer and “set the scene” so that your child can develop comfort and facility with his/her new knowledge and skills.

If they are willing, videotape the interaction so that the two of you can more easily discuss and critique their social practice session.

Dr. Steven Richfield is a child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA. He is the author of Parent Coach. His website is