Supporting Parents. Fostering Change.

Coaching Your Child on Joining In

“Nobody wants to play with me.”

“The kids were teasing me today at school.”

“I never get invited to birthday parties.”

“I don’t fit in.”

Sound familiar? We’ve all heard our children say these things from time to time. These comments usually reflect normal growing pains. In some cases, though, children say these things on a regular basis. If that’s true for your child, he or she may be communicating a need for help.

I have spent the last 25 years as a clinician helping children make and keep friends. So many of the children I see alone in counseling share the same problem—feeling that they don’t fit in with their friends and classmates. One 8-year-old boy said, “I feel like I live on my own planet, and everyone else lives on this one.”

Feeling alone and disconnected from peers is distressing for a child. Many parents also feel frustrated and hopeless at not knowing how to help their children make the friends they so strongly desire.

That’s why I created Stepping Stones, a social skills group training program for children aged 4 to 12 and their parents. I have found that teaching children basic social skills not only enables them to make and keep friends more easily, it gives the children a feeling of acceptance and a sense that they’re not alone in their troubles. It also helps significantly improve their self-esteem.

Social skills are extremely important for children. Good social skills enable children to get along well with others. Unfortunately, children rarely have any opportunities to learn good social skills. Cooperation, empathy, conflict resolution, managing emotions and listening skills are not commonly taught in our schools. Yet somehow society assumes that children can learn how to get along with others simply by observing others. But that doesn’t always happen. The good news is that social skills can be taught to children, the same way you can teach a child mathematics or spelling. Parents can learn easy training techniques to work on with their child, and the positive results are often immediate and dramatic.

Making a Good First Impression
Following are some simple questions you can ask yourself to determine if your child might need a little help in joining in and making a good first impression:

• Does your child have trouble approaching a new group of children?
• Does your child wait for an appropriate break in the conversation before saying something?
• Does your child join a conversation smoothly by asking a question that relates to what’s going on?
• Does your child look others directly in the eye when speaking?

Joining a group is not easy and children may enter group situations inappropriately or awkwardly, totally unaware of the impact their behavior has on the rest of the group. For example, your child might be like Jennifer who doesn’t have a shy bone in her body. She thinks nothing of barreling into a group of children playing kickball, grabbing the ball away, and saying, “C’mon, let’s play Spud.” Being too pushy or trying to change the group’s activities too quickly can cause other children to react negatively to your child. At the other extreme, you may have a child like Matthew, who always remains on the sidelines, watching and waiting for someone to ask him to join in. Matthew would like to play with others, but does not know how to do so. He is more comfortable playing by himself than rising to the challenge of entering a social situation.

DO’s and DON’Ts
Regardless of your child’s personality type, your goal is to help him understand what constitutes good social skills. Following is a list of DO’s and DON’Ts for children who want to join in and make a good first impression:

DO’s:

  • Watch others—check out what the group is doing first and determine if it’s a group you’d like to join.
  • Watch yourself—make sure you appear friendly and approachable, especially in your tone of voice and your posture.
  • Think of what to say ahead of time—for example, “Can I play with you?”
  • Think of when to say it—wait for a break in the conversation or the game before speaking.
  • Look others straight in the eye when speaking to them.
  • Go with the flow of the group—try to do what they’re doing at the speed they’re doing it.
  • Find common interests and talk about them.
  • Ask a question that shows interest – this is a good conversation icebreaker.
  • Address your first question to the child who is smiling, who seems open to hearing from you.
  • Join a group that appears friendly where the children are playing safely and fairly.

DON’Ts:

  • Don’t tease others.
  • Don’t brag about yourself.
  • Don’t criticize others.
  • Don’t take charge and try to control the behavior of other children.
  • Don’t stand too close or too far away from other children.
  • Don’t disrupt a game.
  • Don’t join others who make it clear to you that they don’t want you to play with them.

Practice Exercises
Now that you understand the basics of making a good first impression, it’s time for you to share this information with your child. In doing these exercises together, take special care to be sensitive and gentle in your guidance. Praise the positive behaviors as much as possible.

1. Sit down with your child and review the do’s and don’ts lists with him. Ask if he can come up with other do’s and don’ts to add to the list.

2. Role-play with your child, allowing him or her to play the role of the “joiner” first, then the “joinee.” You could have him practice by attempting to join in a game of cards or catch, for example. Involve siblings in the role-play wherever possible. Try to focus on the do’s of good social skills, praising your child for appropriate behavior.

3. Before your child confronts a new situation, sit down together and anticipate what might happen and how he might handle the event. For example, “Tell me, Andrew, what are you going to do when you first get to the birthday party?” “Well, mom, I’m going to walk up to the birthday boy and wish him a Happy Birthday. Then I’m going to walk over to where the other kids are playing and ask them if I can join in.” “That’s right, Andrew, you’ve got it

Setting the stage with others by making a good first impression is just the first of many stepping stones in making and keeping friends.

Enjoy,

Cathi Cohen, LCSW, CGP

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