“I have a stomachache, Mommy. It hurts so much”, 8 year old Eliana looked up at her
mother with tears in her pleading eyes. 7:45 AM. Stomachache time. Some days it was
a headache, others it was a vague leg pain, but mostly it was the standard
stomachache. Eliana knew that when she got to school, she’d be alone. At recess time
she would stand at the side of the playground, watching while the other children
played jump rope and ball. She would rather clutch at her stomach until she made it
hurt for real, than go to school and be alone for another day.
Why do some children have a hard time making and keeping friends?
Social challenges can be especially difficult for young children. They often lack the skills for handling playground situations. Problems that could be solved with some basic solutions may seem insurmountable. Telling a teacher what is going on may seem like a task too hard to face. The factors listed below are some of the root causes of social skill problems. Often, when we see a child who has a hard time with peers, it’s because there is another, deeper, problem that is showing up in the way he or she acts. The social skill deficit may be just a symptom.
• Anxiety. Children who have phobias or anxiety may be worried about how they appear socially. They may freeze when in a group setting, finding themselves too afraid to interact with others.
• Temperament. Some children are naturally shy and introverted. They may struggle to assert themselves in a group setting. Saying, “Can I play with you?” may be too risky for kids who are used to being quiet.
• Academic Challenges. Children tend to view their peers by the way they perform in the classroom. If one child goes out to the resource room, answers questions wrong in class, or does poorly on tests, s/he may be viewed as inferior by classmates who are too young or ignorant to tell the difference between academic and social success.
• Low Self Esteem. Children may develop low self confidence for a variety of reasons. The problem is that once they are convinced that they are not as good as their classmates, it may be hard for them to believe that they could actually make friends.
• Speech or Motor Skill Delays. When children have a physical delay, that often affects the way that they function with friends. Children with speech delays may have a hard time expressing themselves in a way that their peers can understand. Children with motor skill or sensory problems may struggle with the physical aspect of playing games and using appropriate social boundaries.
• Low Frustration Tolerance. Some children find themselves getting angry when things don’t go the way they expect. They punch, kick, or yell instead of communicating in ways that can be more effective.
What does a social skill deficit look like?
Zevy stuck his hands into his pockets and wandered around the schoolyard. He was in no rush. He had nowhere to go during the fifteen-minute recess. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his classmates starting a game of football. Why did they never let him play? He got angrier and angrier as he saw all the kids having fun. All he wanted was to be a part of it. He ran to Chaim, that boy who was always in charge, and grabbed the ball, pushing Chaim to the ground. “Ha ha, now no one can play!” Zevy thought to himself.
Social skill deficits most commonly appear in two ways: loneliness and aggression. The lonely child is left out of games and discussions, either by choice or because s/he has no friends. The lonely child may have difficulty with skills such as making eye contact, initiating conversation, respecting social boundaries, and maintaining a positive self-image. The aggressive child may use words or actions to hurt other children. The aggressive child may be perceived as a ‘bully’ and may have difficulty with skills such as recognizing and managing emotions, tolerating frustration, and communicating in a healthy way. Being alone, and using aggression may be equally painful when children just don’t know why they are not making friends. They may not realize that the things they do are alienating them from their classmates.
Helping from the Outside In
How do we help children who are suffering in social settings? One key and underutilized way of helping is communicating with the other adults in a child’s life. When parents and teachers make the effort to reach out and have conversations about a child’s challenges, new solutions can be found. A teacher may be able to pay special attention to a struggling child during recess, ensure that the child has a partner for a special project, or praise the child in class. However, this can only happen if the teacher is aware of the problem. Sometimes even the most talented teachers may not realize that a child is hurting inside. Once they are made aware, teachers can be allies for students facing social difficulties.
Helping from the Inside Out
Children can learn many skills that help them feel more confident and prepared in social situations. Picture the process of building muscle through exercise- it takes time and effort, but ultimately builds strength. The same goes for learning social skills- the process may take children out of their comfort zone, but it ultimately helps them build social ‘muscle’ that they can use to conquer many social situations. Children are very resilient, and with the right support they can change the way they interact with peers.
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Sara Gluck, PhD, LCSW
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