Kids seem to have busier schedules than ever before, as we shuffle them off from one activity or sports practice to another. Some can jump right into social situations, while others struggle.
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What if your child isn’t a social butterfly or prefers to spend time alone at recess or after school? As a parent, there are some ways you can help, says pediatric behavioral health specialist Kristen Eastman, PsyD.
“If your child doesn’t appear to make friends like other kids the same age, they may just need some coaching and practice time on simple social skills,” she says.
She offers these tips to help you assess the situation and give your child a much-needed boost of confidence in approaching social situations.
Start with a “fly on the wall” approach, Dr. Eastman suggests. Attend a few activities at school (or sports after school) and pay close attention to how your child interacts with others. Do they behave differently than their “norm” at home? If so, why?
Your child may have a tough time starting conversations. They may have anxiety in large groups or a fear of public speaking, and that keeps them from engaging meaningfully with other children. Do they prefer to keep to themselves and observe instead of joining in?
Depending on what behavior you see, you can then decide where to focus your attention, what skills need building and how you can contribute. “Trust your instincts, because you know your kid best,” Dr. Eastman says.
Children really do learn by example, so be mindful of how you interact with others.
Every time you strike up conversations with friends or neighbors, or even the check-out person at the grocery store, your child is aware. Almost every scenario becomes a learning opportunity, allowing your child to see how you join in, negotiate and problem-solve.
If your pre-teen or teenager finds it difficult to start conversations at lunch or during free time at school, sit down and practice at home. Discuss what topics interest them that he might talk about with other kids. Test different options until he finds something that comes naturally.
If your child wants to play baseball, but is reluctant to start, visit the field with them and throw the ball around so they can get acclimated ahead of time. Go early to the first practice so you arrive before others start showing up and the scene gets more chaotic.
If they want to take swimming lessons, let them take a couple private lessons before joining a full class, so they’ll already have built up some confidence.
Make it exciting and rewarding to practice trying new things. Even when your child is only making slow progress, make sure to reinforce their efforts.
Acknowledge each small success, and tell your child how proud you are that they keep trying.
For smaller children, setting up a play date with just one other child is often a good idea. If your child is older, you might open up the house by inviting the baseball team over for pizza and a movie.
“Especially in the beginning, the goal is to help your child feel comfortable socializing and make it a positive experience,” Dr. Eastman says.
If social situations are difficult for your child, you might rather avoid or ignore the problem. But your child won’t learn to improve their relationships by always sitting at home with you. Dr. Eastman recommends gradually pushing a shy child slightly beyond their comfort zone into new situations, with gentle coaching and encouragement.
“Don’t throw them off the diving board, but ease them toward the deep end,” she says.
Be realistic about your child’s unique personality and temperament, which guides how much social interaction they seek. Just because you have dozens of friends doesn’t mean your child will, too. It doesn’t necessarily mean there is a problem. Some introverted children make a few really good friends instead of having many more casual friendships.
“It’s tough when a parent’s normal doesn’t line up with a child’s normal,” Dr. Eastman says. “As long as they’re doing things they want to do and are happy and well-adjusted, that’s good.”