Consider the following scenario: David, a 10-year-old boy, runs home from school one day and shouts that he very much wants to start taking karate lessons. Here is the conversation between David and his mother:
David: Mom, I really want to start taking karate lessons. It is so cool and I already know three other boys in my class that are taking lessons.
Mom: Okay, but you have never really shown an interest in taking karate in the past. Why all of a sudden do you want to do this?
David: My other friends are doing this so I think that it will be great to do something with the rest of my friends.
David’s point is a very important one as it relates to social development. Being part of a group is an important part of social development. It gives children the opportunity to build new friendships, increase their self-confidence and become more socially aware of the thoughts and feelings of other children.
I have the opportunity to speak to many parents about specific concerns that they may have regarding their child’s social development. Many concerns always seem to relate to the formation of a peer group. I receive comments such as: ‘My son doesn’t seem to have a peer group. What can I do?”
Social development is different for each child. While one child appears “socially savvy,” others don’t naturally gravitate toward a specific group. A common misconception among parents is that if a kid just “is not included” or “is not socially savvy,” then their kid is OUT. Parents think that there are very few things that can be done in order to improve the situation. Parents can and should be consistentlyevaluating and supporting their child’s social development. Let’s give a few examples as to how parents can work with their child on some specific challenges.
• Consider the parent who is told by their child that they have no one to play with during recess:
Parent: What is something that you like to do?
9-year-old Shmuel: Nothing! I don’t like anything that anyone is doing.
Parent: Don’t you like playing kickball?
9-year-old Shmuel: Yes, but that is not one of the games that are played during recess.
Parent: Why not? Bring in a kickball to school and get a few friends to see if they will play with you. It is something different, but I think that it is worth a shot!
In this example, the parent is trying to remind Shmuel that he does not need to sit on the side. If he does not like the games that are being played, one option is to try to initiate a different type of game based on Shmuel’s specific interest. Shmuel may be sitting on the side because he lacks the skill to initiate a social interaction. If so, the parents can help walk Shmuel through the process and script for him exactly how to initiate a game based on his interest—which will hopefully trigger the interest of the other children.
• Consider the parents who see their child always playing by himself. The parents begin to think that their child is much happier being by himself than with other people, so they don’t see an immediate need for their child to play with others. In this case, it is important to try to put the child into social situations with other kids. Even if the child enjoys playing by himself, he needs to learn and experience what it feels like to play and be part of a group.This can be done by either arranging play dates within a child’s social circle/class, encouraging more informal or after school activities (like karate or something like it, as cited above) or trying to invite more kids over to the house to create new friendships.
• Consider the child who doesn’t have a group of friends to turn to. In this case, the parents can firstly educate the child to identify different groups based on school, religious affiliation, sports, crafts, clubs or other unifying interests or commonalities. Parents, sometimes with the help of a trained therapist, need to help the child acquire the skills to feel confident and secure in group interactions. Working with your child on the following skills can be very helpful to the formation of a peer group:
Learning how to start a conversation and taking turns speaking;
Learning how to be a good listener even if you have nothing to add to the conversation;
Learning to become more aware about what other kids do and like and trying to show interest and curiosity in these things;
Learning how to initiate peer interactions in different social contexts.
And of course, practice builds confidence and ultimate progress.
In the next article, we will continue to explore some additional issues relating to handing group dynamics. “So my child has a group of friends, but I don’t like them. What do I do?”
Mark Staum, LCSW is the school therapist for the PTACH program _ MTA and maintains a local private practice in Teaneck, NJ. For questions about this article or to speak directly with Mark, please contact him at mstaumlcsw_gmail.com
By Mark Staum