By Caroline Maguire, M.Ed. PCC
Everyone wants your child to have friends, be invited to parties, have sleepovers, have someone to sit with during swim practice and have the ability to make friends without your help. But things are not going well, and you are watching from a distance while your child seems to sit alone or barge in to a group or dominates the conversation. And you wonder why can’t this kid just make friends?
Some kids learn social behaviors and just fit in and get along with others. And other children really struggle. And here is the paradox if a child does not play well with others then they are invited to play less and then they do not get the crucial opportunity to practice their social skills. And they lose confidence. We get confidence from doing and from practicing. And the longer this struggle goes on research tells us – the harder it is for children to move past this struggle.
Practice Makes Better
For most children practice makes everything better. BUT for children who struggle socially- they are often leery to practice or in a world of invitation only play dates- they do not have anyone to play with. And socially awkward children, quirky kids, shy kids and kids with challenging behaviors do not get invited to play or begin to opt out of play because they simply do not know how to produce the friendship behaviors that their peers desire.
The good news is that social skills can be developed just like any other skills and this means that no matter how bad things seem- your child’s social struggles can change. But to do this you must help your child. She won’t change these behaviors on her own. And she needs coaching to help her move forward.
When children are young, we coach them to throw a ball, swim, write thank you notes, shake hands and myriad other things. We do not expect our children to learn math by osmosis, but we often forget that learning social skills takes practice and work too. And this is no different. Children will not learn to make a friend on their own. We must help them.
But I Learned To Make Friends On My Own
You may be thinking – well I learned to make friends with no help. Maybe. But each child is unique and many children who struggle with friendship have executive function weaknesses and this means they do not learn new social behaviors on their own. This is often because these children have executive function weaknesses. Executive functions are the management system of the brain – a series of processes that come together and help us:
· Focus attention
· Manage emotions
· Learn from past experiences
· Adapt to new situations
· Plan and prioritize
· Think about the future
· Self- monitor
· Initiate tasks
These are all brain-based capacities directly affect how your child behaves in social situations. And every child has a unique mix of executive function strengths and weaknesses. Executive function is not all or nothing there are degrees of impairment and these executive functions may explain your child’s baffling behaviors. For instance, your child cries and wants friends but when they come over, she ignores them, she tells you she wants to share but then during a play date she is bossy and tries to control everything her friend does. Your child may lack self-awareness and think he is friends with everyone, he may talk at people rather than with them, he may be too silly and too goofy and just invades everyone’s space.
This may be why your child needs support and direct instruction to learn to have successful socialization. And it may be why his behavior often seems baffling and does not make sense.
Becoming Your Child’s Social Skills Coach
You may already be spending time trying to help your child with his social dilemmas. And you may face resistance from your child. That is natural. We all struggle to work on what is hard for us.
And your child may lack self-awareness due to his executive function weaknesses and he may not be aware of his own behavior and its impact on others. But you are the best person to help your child and let’s face it- you are on the front lines working with your child or teen every day.
You are already putting in huge efforts to help your child. Now we are going to shift the way you approach coaching your child, so you are more effective.
To become your child’s social skills coach, you must first understand that this may be a long journey -especially if your child is resistant to the conversation. And there are degrees of buy in from your child, she may not jump up and cheer or show enthusiasm to work with you. But there are degrees of buy in and if your child shrugs or answers your questions- this may be enough.
No matter what – do not surrender the conversation. As parents, we are engaged in difficult conversations, and we are not having them with someone who WANTS to have the conversation with us.
When we can step into their shoes and really explore this with them and continue to talk, then we don’t surrender the conversation. Continuing to have an open, collaborative conversation is essential to helping your child learn to make and keep friends.
5 Steps To Have Hard Conversations With Your Child
1. Pave the Way
Having difficult conversations about challenging subjects can be hard for parents. You may ask yourself how do I get started? Paving the way for the conversation is an important step. For young children its easier because they
2. No Matter What They Say Empathize
Information is power. Often as parents, it is difficult not to react to what your child says. We’ve all launched right into blame, punishment, advice and, then the, “I told you so.” No matter what your child says — he skipped school, is avoiding lunch, or he broke the coffee table — let go of the desire to jump in and react. Take a moment to breathe, and then, listen. The larger goal is to gain your child’s trust, and it is more important than any minor rule infraction. Taking a moment to step back will help your child know that he can always feel comfortable coming to you.
3. Reflect, Clarify and Be Curious
Paraphrasing what your child says and then repeating it back to him shows empathy and helps you clarify your child’s concerns. For example, he might declare that he believes that, “people should invite me to play—I shouldn’t have to approach them.” “Reflect” this statement back to him — “What I hear you are saying is that you won’t approach anyone; they must come to you.” By summarizing and repeating his statements, you allow your child to clarify, share more information, and to tell his interpretation of the statement. By being curious and trying to understand his perspective you invite him to be comfortable opening up to you.
4. Don’t Impose Your Goals on the Situation
Ask your child questions and listen. Do not assume you know the reasons for your child’s behavior. Do not apply pressure and impose your own goals and agenda on the situation. Getting your child to feel comfortable talking to you is about hearing and waiting and showing confidence that your child has the capacity to learn and grow.
5. Partner and Problem Solve With Your Child
Like any of us, children share more when they feel heard and understood. They can put their guard down, engage more readily in the coaching process, commit to developing their social skills, and invest in their success. When you allow for more of a two-way conversation, your child will be more comfortable opening up. Having a calm, open discussion in the heat of the moment allows your child to know that in the future, he can count on you as a partner rather than a judge.
Making friends is not an easy task for some children. But playing well with others is an essential life skill – as important as any other academic skill.
My new book, Why Will No One Play With Me? will teach parents how to coach their child through any social problem. Be sure to take my new checklist to determine if your child needs social skills help at carolinemaguireauthor.com.