You watch your child on her iPad, ignoring everyone. You notice your son retreats to the basement, claiming he has virtual friends, but you know he is socially isolated. The truth is—your child is awkward and cannot quit mix into a group. You may be asking yourself, isn’t he just unique, should I wait and see what happens, or maybe you’ve tried to get him to socialize but have had no success. So what can you do? As a parent, you may be baffled, but you can help your child with these dilemmas.
People skills are life skills. Some children struggle with the self-awareness, self-regulation, and the ability to manage the emotions that are so crucial to social interactions. Developing these skills is essential to helping your child thrive in school, in interpersonal relationships, and the future workplace. You may already be working hard, talking endlessly, and worrying so much. You may be wondering if you wait—will things get better?
In many areas of childhood, wait-and-see often delivers what seems like little miracles. One day your toddler is toddling, and the next day, he is running and jumping. Potty-training looms as a monumental challenge at first, and then one day it clicks, and diapers are history. A child who can’t ride her bike the first time around tries again in six months and can.
But opportunities to play quickly shrink for kids who avoid social interaction or whose behavior is out of sync or off-putting to their peers. Friendships typically start at school but are usually cemented outside of school—at slumber parties, on trips to the park, or other outings.
Children bond over shared interests and activities, whether it is building forts in the living room or playing video games or creating funny skits for their friends or families. Children who are not invited on playdates are at a disadvantage because they don’t have that opportunity to bond with friends or to engage in ordinary developmental activities that promote social growth. They don’t get as many chances to learn and practice social skills as other children do. And if a weary parent takes a pass on invitations because she’d prefer to avoid the uncomfortable outcome she’s come to expect, that only further limits a child’s opportunities for interaction and reinforces the role of odd-one-out.
We are adults, and we have lived many lives. We know adults who cannot collaborate, who alienate people, who do not “read the room,” and we know that adults who struggle with these people skills often struggle throughout their lives. We all know the coworker who drones on too long, the person who shares too much, the person who checks your facts during a causal conversation and says, “actually,” to correct you and everyone else.
This isn’t play better; it’s live better—these skills are essential for adult life—people with social skills outperform their peers 70 percent of the time. Culture and fit are words we use to describe social skills, in other words—the critical ability to read the room, to be adaptive, to get along with others, and to meet people half-way.
Often as parents, we are painting social awkwardness or quirkiness as merely something to hope your child moves past. But some people need more help and need direct instruction to learn critical social skills and to be their best selves.
We are not talking about changing everything about a child, but rather giving him the skills he needs to be able to be his best self. We are not talking about changing the core of who your child is. We are talking about giving your child skills—just like skills she needs for soccer or math. And we are talking about giving her a gift. The gift of choices.