Understanding Social Cues and Etiquette
As with all behaviors, how a child feels inside (emotionally) affects what he or she expresses behaviorally.
Manners and etiquette develop over time and are influenced by a child’s emerging ability to read the social cues and meet the behavioral expectations of different groups. Social skills — or the ways one behaves with and around others — are rooted in a child’s emotional and cognitive development.
Children vary in their innate, genetically determined ability to understand social information and to put social strivings into practice. This inborn ability is called social cognition. Children’s abilities to be successful socially also depend upon how they are feeling inside — whether they feel entirely safe or comfortable in any given setting.
This month, we will discuss our understanding of the connection between how a child feels and how a child acts or behaves. Understanding manners as a behavior like any other may be one way to think about how to best support a child while he or she is developing good etiquette.
Manners are a way of behaving. As with all behaviors, how a child feels inside (emotionally) affects what he or she expresses behaviorally. A child’s emotional state, as well as his or her social cognition (or ability to read and adapt to various social cues), play equally important roles in that child’s capacity to have good manners or behave in a way that is socially acceptable.
The key to understanding why a child behaves or doesn’t behave a certain way is to think of those behaviors as expressions of emotional states. Behaviors are signals about how a child feels on the inside.
Appropriate manners are contextual, meaning that what is right for one setting and group of people may not be right for another. Children typically behave differently at home than they do at school. Over time, most people develop an ability to read social cues and settings, then adapt their behavior accordingly. Very young children depend on help and guidance from parents and other caregivers to learn the contextual influences on what is expected behaviorally.
How a child feels often affects how he or she behaves. Children who feel uncomfortable may have a harder time accessing and expressing good manners. When parents can see beyond the behavior and understand that there is likely some feeling of discomfort behind their child’s lack of good manners, a child can be helped in a meaningful way to understand how his or her feelings influence his or her behavior. In such cases, an uncomfortable child hasn’t “forgotten” his or her manners, but instead is having a harder time behaving in a way that meets expectations.
Sometimes, a little preparation ahead of time or a statement of understanding is all the child needs. For example, a comment such as, “I know you will say hello when it feels right to you. It’s okay to feel a little shy,” helps a child understand his or her reluctance, feel respected and gradually grow into having good and polite manners from a place of mastery.
When to Seek Help
When a child’s difficulties seem to be occurring across settings and are affecting his or her ability to participate comfortably in age-appropriate activities, make friends at school or cope with the ups and downs of everyday life, specialized help in the area of understanding behavior and how it relates to social and emotional development may be beneficial. If you have unanswered questions about your child’s ability to manage these behaviors, consider seeking the help of a qualified mental health professional for more specific ways to assist your child.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.