My son, Harry, is a loving, bright, outgoing eleven year old who doesn’t know how to make friends. He is rarely invited over to other kids’ homes and has been invited to a handful of birthday parties since first grade. His 5th grade teacher tells me that he “comes on too strong” and bosses his classmates around which they don’t like. At home, Harry gets along OK with his little sister except when she beats him at games. When he loses, he absolutely can’t handle it and has a total melt down. It’s the same way with soccer. When the team loses, he loses it. He has participated in his guidance counselor’s “lunch bunch” group for three years running. But, he still seems to be floundering socially. Harry is really smart and can repeat back everything he has learned in his friendship class, but he just can’t seem to use the skills where he needs them most: on the soccer field, in Boys Scouts or in the neighborhood.
It’s heartbreaking for me to see him so desperately want to make friends without success and not to be able to help him.
I’ll do whatever it takes.
As a parent, all we want is for our children to be happy. We know that as they grow up, friends become more and more important. Without them, children feel so alone. You, like most parents, are more than willing to help your child learn the social skills he needs to make and keep friends, but you need guidance. You have already exposed him to socialization opportunities by participating in Boy Scouts and soccer. And you have modeled good social behavior. For many kids, this would be enough to set them on their way to making friends. Socially adept children don’t need additional formal training and practice to learn social skills.
You are not alone. While social skills come naturally and easily to some children, for many kids, basic interpersonal skills prove elusive. Try as they may, children like Harry struggle with the basic building blocks inherent in social relationships: good eye contact, active listening skills, attention and accurate reading of social cues, conflict resolution, self-awareness, emotional regulation, and social confidence. But there is hope for Harry and other kids like Harry. Please know that Harry’s behavior is not intentional or even within his control right now. Children do not actively seek rejection. But Harry may not have the skills in his social repertoire just yet to connect with his peers.
I know what you are wondering, “OK, Cathi, so how can I help him acquire these critical social skills? And why haven’t his sports teams, Boy Scouts troop, and lunch bunch groups made a dent in his social functioning?” These are very good questions. When you have worked as hard as you have to help Harry by working through these social avenues, it’s understandable you want to know why aren’t they working. Here’s why:
#1 Harry needs to build skills before he should be expected to use them. You hope by enrolling him in these age appropriate activities, he will develop social competencies and make friends. Certainly, this approach makes all the sense in the world for a more socially adept child. Team sports and Boy Scouts are both wonderful activities to build camaraderie and develop peer relationships. Unfortunately, for a child like Harry who exhibits significant social issues, these activities are generally unsuccessful and may actually result in enhancing his negative reputation and furthering distance between he and his peers.
#2 Boy Scout leaders and soccer coaches are not trained to understand Harry’s needs.
Most lay leaders and coaches are not trained in principles of behavior management, group dynamics, and social skills training and as a result may not know the critical importance of responding to Harry’s challenging social behavior with guidance and instruction rather than condemnation or ignoring.
#3 School friendship groups are nice but limited in their scope and impact. Even when a lunch bunch group is led by a highly skilled guidance counselor, it is limited in its ability to change deep rooted social competence problems. These groups are typically very time limited, usually meeting no more than 12 times in a school year, and they are brief, meeting during a half hour lunch break. In addition, these meetings can offer little in the way of follow up, practice and reinforcement at home.
How You Can Help
Although there are no quick fixes for Harry’s social problems, here are a few strategies that may help you:
1. Limit after school activities until you are sure he has the social and emotional skills to handle it.
2. Review social goals with Harry before he attempts a social outing. For example, “Tell me, Harry, what is the first thing you will do when you go outside to join the neighborhood kids at kickball.” “I’m going to see which team has fewer players and ask to join that team”
3. Assume that Harry’s social skills snafus are unintentional. When you believe Harry’s behavior is benign, you will be more likely to teach him new skills without judgment or negativity.
4. Discuss and practice a skill that he may need to use outside the home. Prior to a soccer game, review with Harry what to say and what to do if he should lose the game, gently reminding him of his previous behavior and his desire to do it differently this time.
5. Help Harry tune into the body language and facial expressions of other children. Highlight for him the clues others show him when they are interested, annoyed, or bored with him, for example. Then help him practice ways to change his behavior accordingly.
Because Harry’s social problems are both long standing and complex, and you have already tried various methods for helping him, it may be time for you to consider participating in an intensive social skills program like Stepping Stones. I’ve worked with kids like Harry for over 20 years, and I know the challenge of helping children integrate vital social skills into their every day behavior. There are three components of Stepping Stones that are integral to the solid development and application of friendship skills:
#1 Parents: I have found in order to maintain the impact of our social skills training program, there needs to be consistent and ongoing communication between the family and the group leaders. Learned skills are more likely to be mastered if they are reviewed, reinforced, and practiced in between group sessions. The Stepping Stones parents in our simultaneous parent groups are their child’s social skills coaches. They share in the social language of the group, set and reevaluate their child’s group goals, lend each other support and guidance, and practice exercises and activities at home with their child to enhance skill development.
#2 Qualified Clinicians: Social skills training is not for the faint of heart. It is hard work for kids and also for you as the parent. While there are many qualified therapists in our area, there are few who are qualified to lead social skills therapy groups. Stepping Stones therapists have been trained and supervised in the Stepping Stones model of treatment, an effective and responsive treatment method.
#3 Realistic: While I know that Stepping Stones is a huge investment in time, energy, and money, I also know that it is the relatively long term nature of the Stepping Stones program (some groups running once a week for the entire school year) which makes it effective. The research confirms and we know intuitively, the changing of deeply ingrained social behaviors takes time.
Change is possible. With the right combination of skill building, practice, and support from you, I am confident Harry will feel less alone and more connected to other kids and happy in his life.
Feel free to contact me if you have any more questions.
All the best.