Social Order

Social Order

It is frequently the case that students who are most often cast aside, labeled or ignored — shy, withdrawn and hyperactive children, even bullies — all struggle from an inability to manage social cues and effectively convey their natural desire to make friends.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), these issues are only likely to grow as school populations increase. Last year, approximately 50 million students attended public elementary and secondary schools. Of these, over 35 million were in prekindergarten through eighth grade, with nearly 15 million in grades nine through 12. The latter number is expected to rise this fall.

There are a number of ways for your child to fit in and not only make friends, but also be a great friend to others. 

Dr. Mary Rooney, a psychologist with the Child Mind Institute who specializes in disruptive behavior disorders, including ADHD, says supervised play dates are a wonderful way to help younger kids make and keep friends in lightly controlled social situations. In preparing for the play date, discuss behavioral expectations with your child and advise them to look for signals that their guests have tired of an activity and are ready to move on to the next one. 

The ability to read body language is another way kids learn to correct inappropriate behavior, so have discussions with them about how to read certain cues from their friends. The experts at the Child Mind Institute frequently recommend role playing at home as an effective way of helping children work on social skills needed at school. Emphasize to your children the importance of sharing and taking turns and remind them that their friends expect the same treatment. Ask what they think the consequences might be when this does not occur. 

Children with behavioral issues will especially benefit from role-playing scenarios at home since it can help them deal with stressful and provocative situations they may feel too overwhelmed to deal with appropriately when the time comes. 

Educators agree that one of the best ways to teach a particular skill or behavior is to first model it for your child. While this is often easier said than done, allowing your child to view you and your healthy relationships with friends can convey this message simply and effectively. 

Parents can help in other ways, too. One is by not becoming overly involved in their child’s spats and arguments with peers. Of course, it’s important to intervene or at least interject when teachable moments present themselves, or the conflict has become larger than the child’s skill set or temperament can tolerate. 

Dr. Jamie Howard, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, advises that, “As long as the children don’t veer into play that’s outright dangerous, let the play date unfold as it may.”

When it comes to play dates for younger children up to middle-school, Howard believes in a moderately hands-off approach for civil play, but adds that it’s a good idea for parents to review the time the child spent with friends and point out positive aspects of the behavior of all involved, while taking care to single out any favorable behavior on the part of your child.

“Kids are more motivated by praise than by avoiding criticism,” Howard says. “Specific, labeled praise is most helpful. Instead of ‘good job,’ say, ‘you shared very well with your friend.” 

When it comes to the shy child, making friends is an activity that is regularly fraught with anxiety, but experts warn that it’s important that parents not go to the extreme when it comes to protecting their shy or withdrawn child from more assertive peers and situations where they may potentially encounter conflict, as Rachel Busman, a psychologist and specialist on childhood anxiety, observes in an interview with

“There’s a difference between accommodating and enabling. For shyer kids we want to give them opportunities to meet new kids, but we want to help bridge the transition so they aren’t too uncomfortable,” Busman says.

Timid and introspective children often miss key opportunities to overcome these types of challenges because well-meaning parents and other adults fail to allow them to experience the discomfort inevitably encountered when managing these relationships. There is no triumph like the triumph of a child who’s conquered a fear or particularly daunting challenge. It is often these smaller challenges that provide the biggest boosts to a child’s self-esteem and confidence in social situations.

Experts encourage parents to have their children practice managing peer-introductions; teach them to get in the habit of smiling without staring at those who make eye contact. A quick smile at another student having a bad day or unpleasant moment can quickly cement a friendship that lasts for years. 

For children who continue having trouble fitting in or finding their place within a certain social circle, Rooney recommends that parents make time to discuss any concerns regarding social skills with their child’s teachers. Teachers are often a trove of vital information on the way your child interacts with other students away from you, and the other students’ responses to those interactions.

“Often kids will say ‘everyone hates me,’ but they may not be able to describe what’s going on,” says Rooney. A frank conversation with the child’s teacher can nip many social issues in the bud before they become more serious social anxiety problems. Such a discussion may also offer valuable insight into emotions your child may have at school that they’re hesitant to share at home.

It can be painful to watch children flounder in social situations. But if they know they’ve got the inner resources to handle what comes their way, their outer-being will reflect that confidence, and that can make them an attractive friend to have. 

Social Order

Social  Order

Dear Patti,

My 8-year-old son Trent has just been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a neurobiological disorder of development. I’ve been reading all about this and, luckily, there are many symptoms of Asperger’s he doesn’t seem to have. His biggest problem is his inability to understand his peers when it comes to social skills and relatedness. He gets invited to play with other children once or twice and then doesn’t get invited again. I spoke with two moms I’m particularly close to and one of them explained that Trent would take a building or science toy and then go off and play by himself, something that turned other boys off. The other mom explained that Trent’s preoccupation with only science toys and his refusal to play ball or other outside sports made his peers turn away as well. I’ve also observed Trent dominating groups of children by spouting scientific facts, not noticing the other children looking bored and losing interest. I feel badly because I know he’s not trying to be selfish; he’s just trying to relate as best he can and is often misunderstood.

I can see Trent’s symptoms and — while there’s plenty of literature on Asperger’s syndrome — I need guidance as a parent on how to help my son socially. I want him to be accepted by others and have a group of friends.


  — Jubilee

Dear Jubilee,   

Children with Asperger’s have difficulty learning social skills that come naturally to their peers and need social behaviors to be taken apart for them, piece by piece. These teachings need to be given with patient lovingness, even when it needs to be receptively repeated over and over again. Children with this disorder require much more direct instruction and repetition about social rules and expectations than a typical child requires. 

Specific training for common, everyday social interactions — reinforced by countless repetitions — is a very effective intervention for individuals with Asperger’s. This includes instructing Trent on how to approach another child, how to start a conversation, take turns in line, say appropriate greetings, use an appropriate tone of voice (e.g., using a quieter voice in the classroom versus a louder voice during recess), use appropriate rules of proximity (e.g., knowing how close or how far away to stand or sit next to another person). 

It’s also an invaluable lesson for Trent to learn to use polite phrases such as “Please” and “Thank you,” establish and maintain appropriate eye contact, share and take turns, listen to others, and share conversations fairly and equitably. It would be helpful, too, for Trent to learn how to observe other people’s feelings. For example, “Your friend is sad because his puppy won’t play with him. Look at how his mouth is not smiling.”

The “What-if” exercise might be helpful as well. This is where you ask Trent step-by-step what he’d do in certain social situations. Example: “What if a friend didn’t want to play ‘Planets’ and wanted to play outside instead? What are your options? You could play by yourself, get angry and go home or you could try to play outside.” Review with him the consequences of each choice. “In the first choice, you would get to play but would be all alone. In the second choice, you wouldn’t get to play and would also be alone. In the third choice you might learn a new fun skill and gain a friend as well.”

It may be more difficult and take a little more skill to address Trent’s skill deficits such as perseverating on a topic (even though the listener is no longer interested), making off-topic comments, interrupting or refusing to compromise, not recognizing that other children may not have the same level of interest in his interests, and that he may need to talk about them for only short periods of time (as well as recognizing when to shift the topic of conversation).

While cooperative play, developing empathy and understanding for another child’s perspective, and identifying and expressing one’s own feelings may come naturally to your friend’s child and much more easily than these things come to Trent, that doesn’t necessarily mean he is untrainable.  

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email Visit her website,

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