Social Detective: Why Your Child Isn't Making Friends

| Living

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As your child grows, you and their pediatrician are looking for physical developments like fine and gross motor skills, speech and language, vision and hearing. Social skills and milestones sometimes fall by the wayside as you try to give your child time to learn them. Sometimes parents get so used to their child's personality, it's tough to discern any differences or missing pieces until the child enters school. At this point, he is compared to his peers by the peers themselves and the educators leading them. You might have noticed signs on the playground or hints from his friends that your child's social skills aren't where they need to be. You want to step in and help, but don't know where to start. It's a fragile system. Follow along with some expert advice and know that this is not something you need to address by yourself.

First, observe. Gauge where you child is and take note of how they interact. "... don’t just drop them off at soccer practice," suggested Dr. John Mayer, clinical psychologist. "Stay and observe for a few moments — fantastic learning can occur by watching them and the more you have concerns, the more time you need to spend on watching them at these activities."

Look for patterns, take the environment into consideration and let it play out. One observation technique you can apply is the ABC method: antecedent, behavior, consequence. First, find out what was happening before your child did whatever they did or didn't do. This is very telling information. Note the behavior itself. Then look at the consequences you applied as a parent and any consequences naturally occurring after the action.

Ask the right questions. "Is my child popular?" isn't a really good question to ask. Even "popular" kids have trouble with certain social aspects often relating back to themselves, like self-esteem or confidence.

"There are five core competencies that encompass social and emotional skills including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making," explained Jennifer Miller, M. Ed., author and parent educator. Jennifer outlines a few questions you can begin to ask yourself:

  • How does my child cope when he or she get upset or frustrated?
  • Can my child focus his or her attention on the teacher and express good listening skills?
  • Can my child make good decisions for him or herself, obviously aware of his or her options?
  • Is my child aware of how those decisions affect others?

Look for clues. Once you start observing more and asking questions, start to put the data together and the clues will rise to the surface. Neuroscientist and mother of a child with ADHD, Candice Hughes, shows you what some of those clues are:

  • Usually has fewer or no friends
  • Fewer birthday party invitations or play date invitations
  • May have abrupt breaks with friends
  • May receive calls from teachers over issues occurring on the playground or in class like being disruptive, arguing or being bullied by others
  • May also experience friction with adults, including family members due to being unacceptably blunt, not responsive when asked questions or argumentative

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If one or more of these clues seem to be a common thread within your child's social life, it's time to talk to the pediatrician. Get a referral to a behavioral specialist who can talk with your child and you to form a plan. There are several reasons your child might be exhibiting these signs, but stress in home life or school, personality preferences like introversion or possible mental health conditions like ADHD or autism.

"It is possible that someone who is strongly introverted may appear rude because they decline invitations for social activities or sit on the edge, away from others at social gatherings," explained Candice. "For introverts, the best thing is to allow them to have their alone time, but encourage social time too, especially with small groups where they'll be more comfortable. Realize they don't need as much social time as extroverts. Allow them to have only two or three close friends." 

Aside from missing links in social behavior, your child may have great strengths in other areas. It's important to recognize these strengths not only for a positive side but for a reason as to why your child acts the way he or she does. "Many have a strong logic focus," Candice continued. "For example, if a child receives a copy of a Harry Potter book and they already have a copy at home, they might respond with, 'I have this book at home,' instead of simply saying 'thank you.'"

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You can help, but not alone. Tap into your resources, including health professionals, parenting workshops and your gut instincts. Instead of wanting and waiting for your child to fall into the mold, explore new adventures for them and find out how to excite them. "Another tip I have for parents is to not force socialization on them," said Dr. Mayer. "If they are not making friends in one activity or even at school, it is our job [as parents] to find social outlets for them to make friends who are like-minded and have similar interests. Even at school, there is no mandate that they will be popular at this age and at this school — don’t fight that."