Social skills difficulties sneak up on most parents. Suddenly the child who had played alongside the other kids is now feeling isolated and unable to make friends.
This happens because of how quickly social interactions change once a child moves out of toddlerhood. While being able to take turns was once enough, now the child must be able to grasp the nuances of both verbal and non-verbal language. They must also be able to distinguish between literal and non-literal language. And while we take it for granted, this is not an easy thing to do.
The worst part of the whole thing is that these children want to make friends. They just do not know how to.
My Child Just Doesn’t Get It
Parents often tell me it is hard to understand why their child “just doesn’t get it”. One reason is because their child is unable to learn social skills through experience like other children. Instead, he must be taught.
While not limited to them, social skills difficulties are key components to learning, language and Autism Spectrum disorders. Unfortunately the research shows that few of these children are getting the help they need.
The consequences of this are devastating. Children who have trouble socially are at greater risk of suffering from anxiety, depression, substance abuse and social isolation. They are also at greater risk of being bullied since they are unable to pick up on social cues.
The Road To Negative Labels
Many parents get frustrated when they place their children in settings with children who have good social skills. They hope that their child will learn from their peers, but since their child is unable to pick up on social cues they don’t.
While this environment is important to practice new skills, it is not the place to learn these skills. Everything moves too quickly and sets the child up for failure.
It also risks them being misunderstood by the other children and adults, this leads them to being labeled the “weird”, “mean” or “bad” kid. For example a child who’s overly blunt may be prone to hurt another child’s feelings without meaning to. Even though he does not understand what he is doing wrong he may get in trouble. Unfortunately, when children are given these negative labels they often feel it is their responsibility to live up to them.
Your Words Matter
There is a little boy I know well who I will call Brian. Brian is an active little boy with some attention and sensory issues. Brian is also a very bright boy who doesn’t miss a thing.
One day when Brian was doing something he should not be doing I asked him why he was doing it. He replied “Because I am Brian”.
I shared this comment with his parents who now work hard at avoiding negative labels. However, while we can control the labels given to our children in our own homes, we cannot control how they are labeled outside of our homes.
The Problem With Waiting
Social skills problems do not go away on their own. As social situations become more complex social skill difficulties become more obvious.
The best thing to do for your child is to work on these skills early. This will help your child effectively interact with his peers.
Do not push these needs aside until they become overly apparent. If you feel your child is at risk, or is having difficulty making friends, get help.
As I mentioned earlier, children with autism spectrum disorders as well as learning disabilities have social skills deficits as a central feature of their disorder. If this is your child, these needs should be addressed automatically. There is no reason to wait.
Waiting only complicates the situation.
A mom from Nevada recently contacted me and said that her “very smart 11 year old daughter loves school” however, “…she has kids she knows and will talk to, but no real friends. She cries at night and doesn’t want to go to recess or lunch at school.”
I wish I could say such stories are uncommon, but they are not. A Westchester mom recently said of her daughter “All I want is for her to have at least “one” friend so that she does not hate school and she is not so lonely.”
I hear these stories every day. For 15 years I have worked with children who have these challenges in their lives. However, it is still hard for me to see children who are unable to make or keep friends.
At a the last health fair I attended I met a mother who told me that her son who is on the autistic spectrum said, “Mom, I always feel like there is something I am missing and I just don’t know what it is.”
All children want to fit in. And with the help that is available there is no reason for them not to. No child should be a lonely child.