September 26: Supporting Social Skills
Recently I have spoken with several parents who expressed concern that their children are struggling to connect with peers, particularly in unstructured situations such as when they are waiting for an activity to begin. One parent described arriving at a sports practice and noticing that there was very little peer interaction as children were gearing up and waiting for practice to start. Another parent reported that, after the first day of school their child lamented, “Nobody even asked me what I did this summer.”
During the pandemic, children missed out on opportunities for social growth and some children may be particularly impacted by gaps in their social learning. In addition, the presence of phones and other technology in children’s lives means that they have fewer opportunities to practice social skills than parents may have had when they were young. Rather than hypothesizing about what might be causing these struggles, I find it most useful to focus on solutions. Specifically, what parents can do to help children build skills and develop a repertoire of strategies for connecting with peers.
To begin, have a conversation with your child about what you have observed or about the stories they have shared with you regarding trying to connect with peers. As much as possible, approach the situation with calm curiosity and without judgment:
“When I drop you off at play practice, I’ve noticed that kids aren’t talking very much. What’s that like for you?”
“How are things on the bus in the morning? Are people chatty or is it pretty quiet? Is the afternoon any different?”
“Huh, so nobody asked you about your summer. How was that for you?”
Depending on your child’s personality style and temperament, these questions might lead to a longer conversation about social interaction, or you might have a brief discussion in which you gain some additional information. As with so many aspects of parenting, there is no single correct way for this conversation to unfold. The main goal is to raise the topic and let your child know that you are aware and interested in their experience and what they think about it.
If your child is engaged and interested in this topic, try sharing some specific tools for making social connections.
Smiling and/or saying hi to a peer can be a good way to begin. Help your child practice saying hello and using the person’s name: “Hi Sam.” If saying hello feels like too much, ask your child if they are willing to try smiling or making eye contact with a peer.
Talk with your child about the fact that most people like to be asked questions about themselves. Remind them that when they are in a social setting and don’t know how to proceed, asking someone a question about themselves is often a successful strategy.
More specifically, help your child brainstorm a couple of general questions which would be suitable to ask any peer – both someone who is a friend and someone with whom your child may not yet have a connection. Families can talk about ideas for questions over the weekend so that each week your child has a fresh set of ideas, such as:
“Do you have an idea for your Halloween costume?”
“Do you like ____ [Lego Star Wars, Stranger Things]?”
“Did you watch the game this weekend?”
Or, most simply: “Do you know what’s for lunch today? What’s your favorite school/lunchbox lunch?”
Similarly, you can introduce your child to the strategy of holding in mind a brief, amusing story about a general topic – perhaps an silly anecdote about a pet or something unexpected that happened over the weekend. When I share this strategy with children in my practice I tell them my go-to funny anecdote that can be shared with just about anyone: the year that I was on internship (and working very long hours), I left the house in the dark one morning, drove to the hospital where I worked, showed up at rounds, and realized I was wearing one black shoe and one navy shoe!
Another strategy is for your child to think of themselves as a detective trying to learn more about someone in their orbit, perhaps a classmate or peer in one of their after-school activities. Practice noticing a clue about a person, perhaps a t-shirt or a sticker on their water bottle, and using that clue as a jumping off point for asking a question:
“That’s a cool shark sticker. Where did you get it?”
“Do you like basketball? What’s your favorite team?”
Reaching out to a peer in this way may feel scary or uncomfortable at first. It’s helpful for parents to acknowledge that managing these feelings of discomfort takes bravery and persistence:
“I know this feels hard. You’re a kid who can do hard things.”
“I get that asking a question might feel awkward. Maybe you could do an experiment: try asking someone a question once a day for 3 days then let me know the results.”
“I hear you – this may feel uncomfortable at first. If you practice this strategy and give it a chance, I wonder what will happen.”
Finally, if you have questions or concerns about your child’s social development, it can be very helpful to reach out to a teacher or school counselor to share your concerns and ask for more information about how the school is supporting social and emotional development in your child’s grade.