Parenting a Child Who Struggles Socially

Developing social skills can take a life-time of practice. I know I still feel overwhelmed at times when I walk into a room full of strangers. The introvert in me wants to turn around, go home and have a bowl of ice cream to lessen my stress. But, as an adult, I use some of the “tools” I’ve developed over the years to interact with others and be open to meeting new people. 

Children also need to develop “tools” for handling social situations. For some children, this comes more naturally, but for others, they may struggle. Some children may find interacting with their peers to be confusing or stressful. Just as children need to practice learning their shapes and colors, children also need to practice developing their social skills. The good news is that as parents, we can help them develop lifelong skills for navigating the complexities of social situations.

A one-on-one playdate is a great opportunity for you to observe how your child relates to another child. Do they prefer to play by themselves even when another child is present?  Are they able to share their toys?  Can they understand verbal and nonverbal cues? Are they aware of their playmate’s feelings? As you observe your child interacting, look for clues as to your child’s social strengths and areas where they struggle.

Another great resource is your child’s teacher. TPK puts a strong emphasis on helping children develop their social skills. Your teacher can share with you her observations and give helpful suggestions.

A Psychology Today article by Signe Whitson observes that “Kids who struggle socially benefit from adult guidance in developing the skills they need to reach out to their peers and develop friendships.” In other words, Practice! At home, if your child struggles with sharing toys, set up situations where they can practice sharing. If they have a hard time, picking up on non-verbal cues, try engaging them in imaginary play where they can become more aware of the other person’s feelings.

It is important to focus not only on the areas where your child struggles, but also on their strengths. Building off of their interests and strengths will help create a strong foundation for future success. If your child really loves doing art projects, have an art playdate. This will help your child feel confident and more at ease as they interact with a peer. If they love to be active, then have a playdate at a playground. If they love reading, meet up with a friend at the library. Whenever possible, try to create opportunities for developing friendships based upon your child’s strengths. You can also use playdates as teaching moments to help your child make eye contact, take turns and show kindness.

One of the biggest areas you can assist your child socially, is by helping them become aware of their own emotions. As a parent, you can help your child recognize specific emotions and develop strategies for how to successfully succeed in a variety of situations.  Teacher and author Becky Bailey developed a developmental approach called “Conscious Discipline,” which TPK uses schoolwide. Its emphasis is on using teachable moments to “help children develop their social/emotional and communication skills to help manage themselves, resolve conflicts and develop healthy behaviors.” For more on Conscious Discipline, please see the following link Methodology – Conscious Discipline.

As a parent, you can also help your child name their emotions and what their bodies feel like. There are a lot of great books about emotions you can read with your child, such as “In My Heart: A Book of Feelings” by Jo Wiek, The “When I Feel…” series of books by Albert Whitman and the “My Moods, My Choices Flipbook for Kids.”  It can also be helpful to role play what different emotions look and feel like with your child. When you are feeling mad, frustrated, excited or sad, use that as a teaching moment to describe what you are feeling and to model appropriate behavior. Please don’t try to go it alone. Other parents can be a great resource as well.

I know it is not always easy, but try to see each struggle as a teachable moment to help your child “build their toolbox”. You might find you develop a few new “tools” of your own. It just takes practice.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”- Jeremiah 29:11

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