When Your Child Has Trouble

Ways you can help when your child has difficulty relating to peers.

Nov 06, 2012



When Your Child Has Trouble

Nov 06, 2012

Especially if your child has learning differences, he may have trouble with social interactions. "Understanding what someone is saying and being able to react to it quickly and appropriately is critical to being part of a conversation. But some children cannot do that without help," says Juliet Melamid, a speech therapist and counselor who conducts social skill workshops for children.

Children with ADHD can also have difficulty taking and waiting for turns, playing by the rules, and reacting appropriately if they're not winning. But that doesn't mean that the child who is different socially — whether it's due to learning problems or not — can't be included. Your child can learn the social etiquette of play, how to avoid and resolve conflicts, and how to put herself in someone else's shoes. Try these strategies to help teach her how to survive in our very social world.

Role-play appropriate and inappropriate social behavior.
Teach your child how to avoid and resolve conflicts.
Help your childanticipate what to expect — and what's expected of her — at social gatherings.
Ask school staff for help
Have your child participate in a supervised social skills group.


Role-play appropriate and inappropriate social behavior. With children who are seven or under, you may need to teach the process of role-playing as well as which behaviors work best, says Melamid.

  • Choose roles. You may need to play several, even all of, the roles until your child feels comfortable participating. Using puppets can help.
  • Act out the scene. Start with a line such as, "If you don't let me play this game, I'm going to steal the ball and not give it back," if you're playing the role of your own child. An adult might say: "What's going on here? Why is Cameron crying?" There are no "rules" about what anyone says.
  • Afterwards, ask questions about what happened. Congratulate him if he recognizes actions and words that are appropriate; if he didn't, ask a question to help him figure things out. For example: "Do you think that running away will help the little girl get invited into her classmates' game?" Sometimes you'll have to explain why a certain tactic is unlikely to get a good result.

With children eight and older, "it's most useful to problem solve and role-play after a difficult situation has occurred," says John T. Brentar, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in learning differences and social development. Wait until your child is calm and in control, and try to focus on one behavior at a time to maximize success. When you do, keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Be as concrete as possible. Go over what happened and why it was problematic, not just for your child but also for the other children or adults who were involved; but don't blame your son or daughter.
  • Ask your child to come up with other ways he could behave if such a situation came up again. Discuss the pros and cons of solutions he comes up with.
  • Role-play one or more solutions with him, so that he can practice saying and doing things in the right tone of voice and with appropriate body language. Throw in a few unexpected things that other children might do or say to see if he can come up with socially acceptable responses.
  • Practice, practice, practice. A one-time effort is not likely to stick; it's important to repeat your role-plays, particularly in advance of a situation that may elicit unacceptable behavior.

Teach your child how to avoid and resolve conflicts. If his social skills aren't as well honed as his peers, you can help him enormously by teaching the ABC's of how to get along with others on the playground, in the classroom, and on play dates.

  • "Stop, look, and listen." Children whose social skills are lacking often don't pay attention to how others are reacting. Talk about the importance of slowing down and taking a deep breath if something upsetting begins to happen. Teach her to use words to express her feelings about what's happening instead of lashing out physically or running away.
  • Show your child how to apologize. Start by asking him to tell you which one of several apologies you suggest is the best one. Then rehearse how to deliver the apology effectively. Praise him for progress, and point out how he can continue to improve.

Help your child anticipate what to expect — and what's expected of her — at social gatherings. Whether she is headed to a friend's birthday party or to a family wedding, give her a preview of who'll be there and what might happen. This is particularly important for children with ADHD, who often act inappropriately when they are overstimulated or in a new situation that makes them anxious.

  • Be positive. Talk about what she is likely to enjoy at the event. If you're upbeat about it, she will look forward to going, too.
  • Provide some simple rules of social etiquette. For example: Join in the group activity. Let the birthday boy open his own presents. Wait your turn.
  • Come up with a signal that you can give him if you want him to stop or change a behavior.
  • Let your child know that you will reward him for good behavior. Be as specific as you can about what exactly that means — for example, a certain number of reminders followed by a change in behavior.
  • Keep an eye on your child at the event. If it's important to you to socialize with adult guests, consider hiring a babysitter who will monitor her.

Take cues from your child about her preferences in friends. "Parents can learn a lot about how to help their child make and keep friends by observing and helping identify problems with peers," says Melamid.

  • Allow your child to play with a child a year or two younger if she feels comfortable with that. The friendship may allow her to function in a leadership role that is denied her by her more sophisticated peers at school and on the playground.
  • Observe your child at play with other children. Look for reasons why successful play dates work and why others don't.
  • Listen to your child. He may not be able to describe why he doesn't like playing with a particular friend. If you've observed their play, you may be able to ask him how he felt by reconstructing an incident you witnessed.
  • Don't force your child to play with children he can't handle. It's better to put a hiatus on play dates unless you're willing to be very involved during the time they're together.

Be involved in play dates to insure success. If your child has behavioral problems, your active participation when peers come over to play can make a big difference. You, or your caregiver if you're not at home, should:

In advance:

  • Prepare your child. If you know that he feels uncomfortable sharing certain possessions, ask him to select them in advance and put them out of sight.
  • Talk about the importance of doing things the guest enjoys. Discuss possible activities so that she can say, "We could build a castle, play checkers, or play outside — what would you like to do?" If she has a short attention span, suggest activities that can be done in a short time.
  • Arrange for a secret signal so that you can alert your child about inappropriate behavior during the play date without the friend noticing.
  • Plan an activity if it's the first time the children are getting together or if you feel the play date will turn out better if it has more structure. Play games with the children, plan a baking or cooking project, supervise a craft activity, or take them to an indoor gym or play area.

During the play date:

  • Let the children play by themselves (once you have confidence in your child's ability to behave reasonably well), but intervene when necessary. If your child wanders away during a game, for example, redirect his attention back to the game. Or suggest a short break.
  • Monitor your child's behavior and give him the secret signal as needed. If he does something hurtful, get involved.
  • Have a video ready in case the children have problems with their play.

When your child is invited for a play date, let the parent who has extended the invitation know what kind of activities or situations he is most likely to do well with. You don't need to say anything about his behavior issues specifically, but you can say, "John can get distracted in the middle of a board game and walk away, but if you remind him that the game isn't over, he'll get back into it."

Ask school staff for help. Let the teacher and playground supervisors know what you're trying to address with your child, and ask for their input on how you can work together. Some schools teach social skills to elementary and even middle-school students. You may want to bring up the idea to the principal or find out if it's an after-school project that the PTA might want to sponsor. If you're working with a psychologist or your child is attending a social skills group, ask the professional you're working with for suggestions on what information and recommendations to share with school staff.

Give your child regular feedback about his off-putting habits and behavior. The younger your child is, the easier it will be for you to give him guidance on how to be accepted by others. As children approach the middle-school years, they are much less receptive to your input unless you've worked hard to develop an easy rapport with them. Even if you do have such a relationship, you will probably have to wait for a cue from her to bring up what may be a delicate subject. "There's a fine line between reminding your child of what's appropriate and nagging," says Melamid.

Here are some of some of the biggest turn-offs both to peers and their parents, and, more importantly, how to state a reminder in positive, helpful language. Target one or two behaviors at a time for change.

  • Monopolizing conversations; always talking about yourself. Positive reminder: "Listen to what others have to say and ask them questions about themselves."
  • Talking too loudly. Positive reminder: "Practice turning down your volume."
  • Making too many negative comments or put-downs. Positive reminder: "Don't say anything if you can't think of something positive to say. Compliment others when they do well."
  • Getting mad when others won't do things your way. Positive reminder: "Be willing to listen to and try out other people's ideas."
  • Bad table manners. Positive reminder: "Practice good manners at home so that you do them automatically when you're with people other than your family."

Have your child participate in a supervised social skills group. These groups provide a safe setting for children to practice new behaviors and get feedback from their peers about how successfully they do it. Therapists (usually speech/language therapists, family therapists, or psychologists) use a variety of structured and unstructured activities to coach participants in appropriate behavior.

"Social skill groups help children develop a repertoire of behavior and language skills through repetition," says Dr. Brentar, the psychologist. "Kids whose social skill problems are emotionally based can usually make great progress over the course of a year, while those with learning differences often stay in groups up to two years," he says.

How can you judge whether your child is a candidate for such a group? He may be if:

  • He complains that he has no friends.
  • He is not invited to birthday parties and social events with classmates and neighborhood children.
  • He is withdrawn and spends a lot of time by himself (and would prefer to be with peers).
  • He has as difficulty participating in team sports or group activities.
  • He has social difficulties in the classroom (as reported by the teacher).
  • He complains that classmates won't include him in recess activities, bully him, or ignore him.
  • He resents or won't listen to your suggestions (which often occurs when children begin to feel more independent, at the age of nine, ten, or older).

To find out whether a social skills group is available in your area, contact your local parent resource organization, school community advisory committee, or CH.A.D.D. chapter.

Problem Solving
Social & Emotional Skills
Attention and Focus
Self Control
Age 13
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Feelings and Emotions
Child Development and Behavior
Developmental Problems and Disorders
Behavioral and Learning Problems and Disorders
Childhood Behaviors
Social and Emotional Development