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How can I help my child make friends?

My son is 8 years old, and I feel that he is lacking social skills. He loves to hang out with his friends, but sometimes it seems like he just doesn't “get it”. He is often at the edge of his social circle, and in order to draw attention to himself he will act silly and inappropriately. He believes that in this way he is winning over friends, and does not seem to recognize that the other kids think he is different and weird.

In addition, when we visit with family, his behavior is often out of line; he will be too friendly with adults and talk to them as if he is their best friend. He cannot seem to click with the cousins his age. I sometimes feel like he is always doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. How can I teach him the appropriate social skills so that he can fit in?


Answered by

Esther Weiss MSED Special Educator and Social Skills Specialist

Summer is a great time to observe our children’s spontaneous social interactions, and to detect their struggles. In your letter, you are outlining your son’s difficulties in interpreting social situations accurately and exhibiting appropriate behavior.  You feel that teaching him social skills will enable him to behave appropriately.

Let’s start by analyzing the term “Social Skills”. Used loosely, social skills refer to a host of behaviors applied by a child (or adult) that make others feel comfortable to share their space. When you mention “social skills” in your letter, you are most likely referring to the specific behaviors you would like your son to display when he is in a social setting, including his mannerism, his tone of voice, the things he says, etc. In order to help children achieve these desired behaviors, we typically resort to telling them how we would like them to act, and when they fail to do so, we let them know that they are acting “inappropriately”.

However, it is important to recognize that in reality, good social skills start with social thinking- having thoughts about the social environment and the people in close proximity to oneself, and considering the expectations of the situation. It is only then that it is possible to produce appropriate behavior. When your son is acting “inappropriately”, he is demonstrating a lack of social thinking.

When attempting to help children produce appropriate social behavior, we tend to teach them the specific desired behavior. For instance, we may teach a child to say “Hi!” when meeting others; to walk quietly down the street; not to stand too close to others, etc. The drawback with this approach is that each situation is unique, and what worked for one situation may not work for another. For example, we may teach children not to stand too close to others, yet when traveling on the subway this is the expected mode of behavior.  In addition, we do not want our child to sound robotic, greeting everyone, including strangers, with the same warm greeting that should be reserved for his grandmother. If we want children to behave appropriately, we would need to go through every possible scenario with all variations- an impossible task.

Hence, in order to help your child succeed socially, you will want to help your son develop the social thinking that will enable him to develop an awareness of a situation and figure out the expectations of the situation. This will eventually lead him to adapting his behavior to match those expectations.

Developing appropriate social thinking is multi-faceted and layered; this response will attempt to give you some tools to help him on a simple level.

Step 1: Start the Social Thinking

A good place to start is to foster a discussion about the thinking involved in social interactions. Help your son realize that he is constantly having thoughts about others. You can help him become conscious of his thoughts by questioning him about the people he has thought about in the past several hours. He will likely share that he had been thinking about his friends playing with him, the bus driver making a short-stop, the man in the wheelchair down the street, etc. You can then guide him to review those thoughts. Did all of his thoughts feel the same to him, or were some thoughts more comfortable than others? Help him appreciate that while most thoughts were ordinary and small in size and allowed him to feel calm, others were large-sized, weird thoughts that brought on uncomfortable feelings.

The following activity will help your son further explore the concept that we experience different types of thoughts in response to behaviors observed in others. Stand with him on a street corner, observing the people passing by, and share the thoughts you are having about them. Articulate that a boy walking to school induces an ordinary kind of thought, while seeing an old man running down the street definitely makes you have a big, uncomfortable thought. Ask your son to share the thoughts he is having about the people on the street, and help him realize how his thoughts change based on their actions. When others are behaving in a way that we expect them to act, we have ordinary, comfortable thoughts about them, and vice versa.

Step 2: Others Have Thoughts about Me

Now you can bring the focus of the conversation back to him. Guide him to consider whether others think about him as well. Many children fail to realize that just like they have thoughts about others, others have thoughts about them. Help him understand that similar to the way he views others, people change their thoughts about him based on his behavior. You can help him list behaviors that induce comfortable thoughts in others, like sharing his snack, and think of what causes others to have uncomfortable thoughts about him. You may present him with a challenge: Does he prefer for others to have ordinary, comfortable thoughts about him, or does he want them to have big, weird thoughts about him? Obviously, we all want others to think about us in a comfortable, positive manner.

Step 3: Understanding the Social Expectations

We mentioned earlier that the expectations of behaviors change with each situation. Help your son understand that different situations call for different behaviors, and what is considered appropriate (expected) in one situation, may be inappropriate and unexpected in another. For example, the expectations in the playground are not the same as the expectations in the classroom. While in the classroom it is admirable to sit still and listen to the teacher, that kind of behavior would look very weird on the playground. The appropriate behavior at a wedding meal is not the same as what is expected in the school lunchroom, despite the fact that both settings involve eating.  You can help your son understand this further by looking through family photos of different situations, and noting the different behaviors exhibited in each setting. You can play games in which he needs to match situations with different expected behaviors.

Help your son realize that when his behavior matches the situation, others have comfortable thoughts about him.

Step 4: Adapting my Behavior

Now that you have helped your son establish the concept that others have thoughts about him, and he acknowledges that he wants them to have comfortable thoughts, he is left with a big question: How can he figure out which behaviors to utilize so that it will match the situation and will enable others to have comfortable thoughts about him?

In order to understand the expected behavior, your son will need to become a Social Observer. He will need to learn to look around and ask himself the question: What is everyone else doing?  How are they acting in the playground? What is everyone doing at the wedding? How are they benching at the Shabbos Seuda? By looking at what others are doing, he can figure out that when at the playground, it is weird to sit on the side while all other children are running around. At the pool, it’s expected to laugh and race with your friends. When he learns to observe and think about the behaviors of others, your son will be able to figure out the social expectations of a given situation. Once he does that, he can change his behavior so that it matches the others in his environment.

Step 5: Gauging Others’ Reactions

By adapting his behavior to match those of the others in his vicinity, your son will learn to blend into the group and behave in a manner that belongs to that setting. This will bring those around him to have small, comfortable thoughts about him and enjoy sharing their space with him. The opposite is true as well: when he acts in a way that does not match the situation, others have uncomfortable thoughts about him, and do not look to spend time with him. Help your son realize that when he uses his social thinking to figure out the expectations in a given situation, when he adapts his behavior to match to what all others in group are doing, others feel comfortable to be around him.

Try these pointers over the summer. Make sure to take note of all the instances when your son is adapting his behavior to his situation. Let him know you noticed by saying things like “I like your calm behavior. It is expected to be calm when sitting at the Shabbos Seuda, and it makes everyone in the family feel happy to be with you!”

If you find that your child is still struggling, it may be advisable to consider professional help.

This response is based on the work of Michelle Garcia Winner and Reuven Feuerstein.

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