It’s hard to watch your child struggle with friendships. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of time before they find and make new friends in their classroom or on their soccer team. However, for other children, their quirky nature or social skills just seem to repel others wherever they go, and it is likely something that won’t correct itself with time and age alone.
We need to think of making and keeping friendship as a set of skills to be taught and developed. Sure, some kids seem to pick up these skills from modelling and without much help. But many don’t.
So, we have to actively teach our children about these social behaviours, similar to how we have to teach them table manners. Children can’t practice putting their napkin in their lap if they haven’t been taught. It’s the same thing with making and playing with friends.
For that reason, please don’t label your child as being socially awkward. Simply re-frame your thoughts as your child has not learned those skills … yet.
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And how are we supposed to teach them?
Start by simply observing your child when they’re hanging out with other children at the park, on school grounds or at a birthday party. Watch specifically for the exact issues they are struggling with.
For example, do people not want to play with them because they are bossy? Are they too physical? Do they refuse to share with others, or have to win? Do they intrude too much into other people’s personal space? Do they ignore other people’s social cues? Now you have a list of micro-skills that you can work on one-by-one and over time.
Practice at home
Some of the practice can happen in your own home together. For example, if you play a card game, and your child always wants to be the dealer and go first, you probably didn’t care enough before to make a point of it, so you simply let them have their way. But what are they learning about playing with others? That’s too bossy.
Instead, demonstrate the proper way of playing by insisting they take turns. Or else refuse to continue playing, letting them know you are not mad at them, but that it’s not fun to play when you don’t get a proper turn. Let them know you’ll gladly play again when they decide they’re willing to take turns. They will come to learn it’s better to share than to not play at all.
Practice with peers
Kids also need to practice playing with actual peers who will play with them differently than you do. If they don’t have any friends, you could set up play dates with same-aged cousins. Or, ask their teacher if they know of anyone in their class that might be a good playmate for them. Teachers have a good sense of those children who are more tolerant or accepting, who may have more skills to deal with someone with lesser social skills.
Set up a short play date with only one other child, and explain to the other parent that you’re teaching and encouraging your child to play better with friends, so if they can’t manage that, the play date will have to wrap up early. Let them know so they don’t drive too far away.
While the children are playing, you need to be attentive and ready to step in. You are there for the purpose of instruction, guidance and correction. If your child is too aggressive, you can stop the play and ask your guest, “Are you feeling afraid?” Then let your child know, “Your friend likes to play with you, but when you jump and flail your arms like that, it feels scary to your friend. Can you calm your body so your friend feels safer and can play better with you?” And then let them try again.
If there are too many failed attempts, calmly offer the choice, “If you can’t play calmly with your friend, then the play date with have to end and your friend will have to go home. We can try again another day.”
Use books to guide learning
It’s important that children understand the impact of their behaviour on others. Learning to see another person’s perspective and think about how the other person might be thinking and feeling takes some training.
Parents can help their child exercise this cognitive muscle needed for friendships by reading books with their kids and stopping to ask questions like, “How do you think the little bunny felt when the big bunny stole his carrot? What might he be thinking about the big bunny?”
Learn social cues from games and TV
Learning to read other people’s faces and body language can also be taught in a fun way by playing games like charades, or guessing the feelings associated with different emojis. You can watch a show without the volume and try to guess what is happening in the show without any language. Can they guess what is happening?
Try an improv class
Find a local theatre that teaches improvisation classes for kids. It’s fun and engaging way to teach a lot of these micro skills!
Seek a professional
Kids who are delayed in social skills can also enrol in classes taught by social workers, counsellors or therapists. The sooner they get caught up on these skills, the sooner they’ll get the benefits of improved relationship with their peers, which will improve their well-being immeasurably.