Yes, even during a pandemic.
COVID-19 has impacted family life in almost every way imaginable, including limiting children's social interactions. As we begin the 2020 school year, it's hard to not worry about how the past several months of social distancing and limited face-to-face time with friends might have affected our children's social and emotional development.
While some children, particularly those who were outgoing and social prior to the pandemic, may bounce back into socializing and play without skipping a beat, others may struggle. Also, new school policies about maintaining distance and wearing masks may make social interactions more confusing and complex for children, whether they're naturally outgoing or a little bit shy.
Here's what parents need to know about how to help children make friends and how to help boost their social skills, even during the pandemic.
How to tell if your child needs help making friends
Prior to the pandemic, we may have taken for granted the process of making and maintaining friendships. As parents, we might not remember how or when we made our first friend, or whether it required any effort at all.
The truth is, making new friends or maintaining existing friendships requires specific social skills, including eye contact, listening, turn-taking, cooperating and sharing, among many others. Some children grasp these concepts by interacting and observing others in social contexts. For other children, it's not that easy. They may need help from parents or other caregivers to develop and master these skills.
How do you know if your child needs help developing social skills? A few telltale signs that your child may need help:
- Your child tells you they are struggling with friendships, expressing a desire to have more friends.
- Your child has no friends or tends to isolate themselves.
- Your child has difficulty initiating friendships. For example, they stare at other children but don't approach them, freeze or appear uncomfortable around unfamiliar children, or say inappropriate things when meeting others.
- Your child has difficulty maintaining friendships. Sometimes a child may have no problems making friends but over time they tend to lose the friends they make—this may signal difficulty with social skills that help sustain friendships, such as cooperating or listening.
How to assess your child's social strengths and difficulties
If your child is having trouble making or maintaining friendships, try to gather specific information about what is and isn't working. What social skills does your child have and what areas can be improved upon? If they're struggling with a specific social skill, what emotional impact does that have? Think about how your child handles themselves in social situations, and reach out to teachers, relatives and other parents for their input.
Not sure what to focus on in these conversations? A few broad categories of social skills include knowing how to manage introductions to new children, listening, sharing, cooperating and following directions and rules. Observe whether your child is struggling with any of these skills, and ask other caring adults in their world what they may have observed. Children who have difficulties forming or maintaining friendships may demonstrate one or more of the following characteristics:
- They may lack knowledge of one or more social skills.
- They may have verbal knowledge of the skills and are able to communicate them, but lack the ability to put them into practice themselves.
- They may experience social anxiety and freeze or become awkward due to fear of a negative outcome or reaction.
- They may seem to lack an interest in social interactions, which may be a signal of shyness or a way of preventing rejection.
It's important to talk directly with your child about their social experiences, too: Ask how they feel when they are on play dates, meeting new faces or engaging with other kids on the playground or at school. These discussions can provide insight into your child's own perceived strengths and weaknesses, their motivation to have friendships, their self-confidence and the emotional impact of rejections or social difficulties.
Here are 4 strategies that can help you talk with your child about social skills:
1. Acknowledge their truth
It's important to find truth in what your child is saying, since it is their truth, and there is some aspect that must be true if your child is saying it. Instead of saying "I'm sure they didn't mean to" or even "everything's okay," find a way to validate your child's experience.
For instance, if your child says, "You didn't listen to me when I told you my friends didn't include me, and that really bothered me," a possible response might be, "You're right, there have been times when I haven't been a good listener." By acknowledging your child's statement, you assure them that you are in fact listening, which will make them more willing to open up and share with you, rather than defend their position.
2. Listen and repeat
As you listen to your child, rephrase and communicate what they're saying back to them. By asking them to confirm the accuracy of your understanding, you are letting them know that you are listening closely, and giving them an opening to clarify or elaborate.
3. Ask and empathize
Make it clear, through your words and actions, that you truly care about their feelings and want to hear more about how they feel. Sit close, cuddle or hold hands (if they'll let you), turn off the TV and put aside the phone. If your child opens up and tells you how they feel, use the "listen and repeat" method to communicate that you're hearing them and understanding. If your child has a harder time expressing their feelings, you can make suggestions or educated guesses as to how you think they may be feeling, and ask them if you got it right.
For example, you could say, "You told me that your friends didn't include you. I wonder if you are feeling upset, frustrated or angry? Is that how you are feeling? Is there anything that I missed? I would love to hear more about it."
You can then communicate genuine care by letting them know how you feel about what they share: "I am also feeling sad that you felt excluded by your friends." By providing empathy, you show that you are interested in your child's perspective. This will likely lead to insight about your child's specific struggles with friendship difficulties, insecurities, and what might help change the situation.
Share your own stories about social challenges you've experienced—either as a child or as an adult. Letting your child know that you understand—and that you've been in a similar situation yourself—can give them hope while also helping them feel more connected to you. Talk about difficulties you experienced in your own friendships when you were younger, and share how you overcame those difficulties. There are also lots of books to read on this subject, including Jake the Howling Dog by Samantha Shannon and Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev.
How to teach friendship skills
After assessing your child's strengths and determining the reasons for your child's difficulties, you can begin to implement strategies to teach them social skills in a comfortable environment: at home with you.
1. Practice social skills step-by-step
Break down the social skills your child needs help with into small, concrete steps that can easily be implemented. For instance, if they're struggling with how to introduce themselves to new classmates, that skill can be broken down into steps like so:
Looking at the other person
Walking up to them
Making eye contact
Waiting for them to look at you
Saying "Hello, my name is..."
Asking for their name
Waiting for them to speak
Saying, "It's nice to meet you"
Each step can then be taught and practiced—be sure to offer plenty of praise and positive feedback for accomplishing each step.
2. Model and talk about prosocial behavior
Our children are always watching us and how we interact with other adults and children. Through our normal daily interactions, we as parents can demonstrate appropriate social behavior in and outside the home.
While the pandemic has changed the way we interact with others—"elbow bumps" have replaced handshakes, and facial expressions are harder to read when everyone's wearing a mask—you can still model and talk about the social behaviors that help people make and maintain friendships.
Your child will learn by watching you, and you can also reinforce that learning by discussing the social interactions they observe, answering their questions and even letting them "re-enact" those interactions with you at home.
3. Address your child's anxieties and fear of rejection
It's common for anxiety to play a role in children's social difficulties. Children who have a harder time initiating or maintaining friendships may have had negative experiences in social situations, and in many cases have already begun to expect to be rejected. The pandemic also comes with its share of anxiety-producing challenges for children, from concerns about getting sick to concerns about not social distancing properly. Even if your child hasn't shown signs of anxiety previously, they may be doing so now, and that is perfectly normal. The good news is that this anxiety can be addressed in a number of ways.
Help your child to identify and discuss their fears. Ask, "What do you think would happen if you talked to Johnny?" You can also ask about worst- and best-case scenarios, for example, "What is the worst thing that you can think of that would happen if you talk to Johnny?" and "What would you want to happen if you talk to Johnny?" You can then talk about these different possibilities and assess the likelihood that any of them will happen.
Use role-playing to practice having conversations. Try play-acting through different scenarios to help your child see that they can handle any outcome that emerges.
Teach them deep breathing to manage anxiety in the moment. For instance, they can be taught to take a deep breath in through her nose, hold it for 5 seconds and breath slowly out through their mouth. The most important step to helping your child get over their fear of social situations is to provide them with opportunities to have positive social interactions. The positive outcomes will ultimately dispel fears.
How to set your child up for success with making friends
1. Build their motivation
Children (like all of us!) gravitate toward things that they find fun and enjoyable and shy away from boring, stressful and uncomfortable situations. Try to get your child excited about interacting with peers by talking with them about how to include other children in activities or hobbies they already enjoy, or safe group activities that they might participate in.
Any game your child already likes can be used to teach and reinforce prosocial skills, too. For instance, if your child enjoys board games, use your time playing games together to practice social skills like turn-taking, sharing, cooperation and following instructions.
2. Schedule and structure play dates
Play dates provide opportunities for positive social interactions, especially if they take place in a familiar setting (your backyard, for example, or a neighborhood park), and with some structure (a menu of preselected activities your child enjoys and that their guest would like, too). A few more guidelines for play date success:
Start with short play dates. 30 minutes to an hour is a great place to begin. Increase the length of play dates gradually as your child grows more successful.
Make it one-on-one. Start with one child initially, and increase the number of children based on your child's comfort, interest and skill.
Plan it together. Involve your child in planning: Talk about which children they want to have play dates with, and which specific fun activities should be on the agenda.
Make it structured. When you do reach out to another child with your invitation to come by and play, be sure to mention the time limit and the specific activities that will make up the play date. That way both children can be prepared in advance for a more structured (rather than free-form) play date.
Offer praise. Make positive statements to the children throughout their play. If your child needs some coaching, have them step away for a moment so you can offer suggestions in private.
Plan to be present. For initial play dates, plan to be fully present and involved in the play. As your child's social skills progress, allow for increasingly less structure and more autonomy.
Given concerns regarding play date safety during the pandemic, families will need to make decisions based on their personal comfort and which strategies to employ to mitigate risk. This may include using masks, social distancing, selecting playmates who are taking pandemic precautions or creating online social opportunities.
3. Encourage social risk-taking and provide praise
Anxiety about fitting in and fears of rejection are commonplace, and may get in the way of your child pursuing social interactions. When a potential opportunity for social interaction arises, such as on the playground, help your child to take a chance on approaching potential friends.
Start gradually: Encourage your child to watch the other children who are playing. Next, encourage your child to approach the other children, offering your support. Ask them if they would like to practice what to say, and perhaps role-play a few different responses. Whatever happens, be sure to tell your child how proud you are and that they did well.
Helping your child develop friendships and social skills may seem daunting, time-consuming or overwhelming, even in non-pandemic times. The current environment makes things even more challenging—we're all concerned about the safety of our families, and we're all adjusting to new changes every day.
But working on your child's social skills can be an opportunity to grow your relationship through sharing, playing and having a good time. By putting the time and effort in now, you will be building life-long skills that will result in years of happiness—for both you and your child.