Parents Of Social Kids Do These 3 Things
Whether your child is a social butterfly who needs to learn boundaries or a shy kid who needs to branch out, this is how you can help them.
Kids warm up to new people at different rates. Some are ready to be the life of the party the moment they walk into the room, while others have a tough time making eye contact or responding to unfamiliar people. Calculating how to push kids outside of their comfort zone without traumatizing them — or help outgoing kids figure out appropriate boundaries — is a tricky task for parents and one they can feel a lot of pressure to figure out since it takes place in the public eye.
Temperament and disposition factor into how naturally kids figure out how to be social, but parents can also take steps to help their kids along. Psychologist and behavior analyst Reena B. Patel sees Erikson’s stages of development as a helpful framework for understanding how kids grow socially. One of the most influential psychologists from the past century, Erikson contended that personality develops in an established order through eight stages of psychosocial development that begin during infancy and continue into adulthood.
“Chronologically, the first stage of development is trust,” Patel says. “Infants figure out whether or not the people around them are safe based largely on how consistently their needs are met. And then toddlers learn independence, which combined with trust lays the groundwork for an ability to create friendships and foster relationships.”
Regardless of where your kid sits on the social comfort continuum, here are three ways you can contribute to their ability to interact positively and appropriately with others.
Parents Of Social Kids Rehearse Social Situations
Social skills are like any other skill. Although some people pick them up more intuitively than others, just about everyone can improve with solid coaching and repetition.
As your kid’s social coach, making them feel secure is imperative because anxiety stifles social comfort. As such, Patel encourages parents to talk about and roleplay social skills playfully in an environment where kids feel safe.
“Start by setting a scenario that’s easy for kids to understand, and lead with a question that will give them an opportunity to come up with a solution on their own,” she says. “Ask about what they’ll do on the first day of school when they meet new people, how they’ll make friends, or what they’ll do if someone wants to play with a ball they’re already using.”
Although you may have to lead your child to an appropriate answer, they may also know a correct response to a social situation even if they can’t yet translate that to responding well in the moment. Just like learning how to shoot a basketball or play the piano, that’s where repetition is helpful. Your kid will have more time to process in your one-on-one coaching environment than on the playground, and practicing builds confidence.
“Once you’ve practiced and rehearsed and roleplayed, create playdates with people they're comfortable with,” Patel says. During the playdate, consider a strategic approach — something between hovering over your kid to coach them through every interaction and rolling up on a busy park with the expectation they’ll successfully navigate the masses.
“If your child is struggling socially, start small,” she says. “The most important thing is for them to feel safe as they continue to build faith in themselves.”
Parents Of Social Kids Encourage Them To Ask Questions
The parental embarrassment of your kid asking an awkward question or making a socially unacceptable observation while in line at the grocery store is a rite of passage. A natural response is to shush the child, apologize to whoever was in earshot, and scold your kid so that people don’t think you’re a horrible person.
However, a calmer response can turn those uncomfortable moments into teachable ones. Kind, social kids can still be curious about things they don’t understand. The goal isn’t to stifle a child’s questions and observations but to teach them when it’s appropriate to voice them in order to maintain the dignity of everyone involved.
“Curiosity drives motivation,” Patel says. “So we want questions, and we want children to develop critical thinking skills. But there is an appropriate time and place. While they’re still learning, give them opportunities to think through why a question or comment might not be suitable for a certain situation, or have them come up with ways that they could ask the same thing with more kindness.”
For instance, it’s natural for kids to have questions about people’s physical appearance. But a good rule of thumb is that while it’s okay to compliment someone, it’s best to save questions for a more private moment. There are healthy conversations to be had about why people have different skin tones or why some people use wheelchairs. But those conversations tend to work best in private where adults can help kids learn how to talk about differences in a respectful way.
Parents whose kids struggle with impulse control and reading social cues may find it helpful to create gestures when their child is crossing a boundary. Not a glare. But a gentle signal — either verbal or nonverbal — acknowledges they've been heard and that you’re willing to hear them out further when the time is right.
“Don't ever let kids feel like there are questions they can’t ask,” Patel says. “But communicate to them that some questions have to wait or remain open before you can answer them.”
Parents Of Social Kids Accommodate Their Temperament But Don’t Label Them As “Shy”
On the opposite end of the social awkwardness spectrum are kids who don’t acknowledge others or have a hard time separating from their parents in social situations. The easy out for parents is to apologize for their child and explain that they’re shy. But Patel encourages parents not to label their children in this manner because it can stigmatize them and put an artificial ceiling on their sociability.
“Focus on the actual behaviors instead of labels,” Patel says. “If your child is hesitant to interact with people who approach them, you can say something like, ‘We're going to need a little bit of time to transition.’ It maintains an expectation while at the same time embracing an accommodation.”
Another helpful accommodation is giving your child longer transitions so that they have more time to adjust. For example, they can enter spaces that will include social interaction early, when fewer people are present and the crowd is less intimidating. As a result, they’ll feel more grounded from the start and can gradually adjust as more people show up.
“You don't have to make it obvious. For example, explain to the child that you want to arrive early to get settled, or ask them if they want to walk around and explore a bit. There are a lot of different ways that you can do it without making the child feel different,” Patel says.
“It's okay to have a different temperament. We are all different for various reasons, and that's okay as long as the child is having their needs met, moving forward, and being equipped to develop relationships.”