In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman says that the two critical components to social success are the ability to take another person’s point of view and the ability to control one’s impulses.
As parents, we are sometimes concerned about how our children are getting along with others. How do you know if your child is having difficulties socially? What might be the reasons for this difficulty?
The development of play skills progresses through three stages: solitary play, parallel play and finally, interactive play. Sometimes children experience emotional difficulties that manifest as retreating from social play. Possible explanations might be a loss, anxiety, or perhaps low esteem. Frequently this withdrawal from social play is short lived as the child is able to effectively deal with those experiences. Of course, there are also those children who are naturally more cautious and slow to warm up. These children typically require a more extensive period to feel comfortable with other children.
However, there are some children who do not successfully progress from parallel to cooperative play. It is these children who frequently have difficulty understanding other people’s point of view and/or may lack the requisite language skills to be able to successfully interact with other children.
When do we become concerned about our children’s social skills? Sometimes, it is a nursery or pre-school teacher who shares her concerns with the parents – she may observe that the child is withdrawn or behaves in an aggressive manner. Other times, we ourselves notice how difficult it is for our children to connect with his peers on the playground. Or, when we visit extended family or longstanding friends and our child’s interactions with those people are awkward or strained.
What are some things parents can do to help their child with these issues?
One suggestion is to arrange 1:1 play-dates that are structured in advance to ensure a successful social exchange. You could talk to your child beforehand about what the other child likes to do, discuss turn taking and sharing and the importance of ensuring that the friend is having a good time. The parent should remain nearby so that if a breakdown starts to occur, s/he can help the kids transition to a more successful interaction such as snack, tag or watching a video. It is important to end the play-date on a positive note so that both children leave having had a good time and feeling good about themselves and one another.
There are some children who, despite repeated efforts by their parents, continue to have trouble taking another person’s perspective or being able to control their impulses in social situations. At that point, it may be fruitful to consult with a professional who is familiar with these developmental issues to help assess what is contributing to these problematic social skills. Problems with language, attention, ego-centricity, or some types of learning disabilities may, together or separately, contribute to your child social difficulties. For some children, social skill problems are the only area of concern. For others, they may be part of a mix of challenges which may be contributing to problems in school and/or problems at home.
It is our experience that the children whose social skills problems are developmental in nature, and not a function of temporary emotional distress, will frequently need a structured intervention such as a social skills group to begin the remediation process. The benefits of addressing these issues in a group with other children with similar challenges are plentiful. A group offers the opportunity to share with peers who can relate to their social challenges, allowing the child to feel less isolated in their struggles. Children can explore issues through role play, structured activities and discussions that are facilitated by professionals. Constructive feedback from peers in provided in a safe and supportive environment. The facilitators help identify goals and strategies that the child can use in their daily interactions. And parents, who work tirelessly in their efforts to help their child thrive, also benefit from the support and education that a social skills program can provide.