We tend to nurture our children’s academic IQ. But what about their social IQ: the ability to make friends? By Ciska Thurman
We assume if we lump children together with some toys, or in a playground, they’ll want to – and instinctively know how to – get along. While for some it’s that easy, it’s certainly not true of all.
Bonds Of Friendship
‘Children need to learn how to form relationships with kids their own age,’ says Julie Hollely, a counselling psychologist in Joburg. From birth, a child’s primary attachment is to a parent or carer. ‘This bond is vital and the quality of this relationship forms the fundamentals of learning how to connect with others.’ From there, children move on to engaging in play, which, according to Julie, is the ‘key to the development of social skills’.
‘Play teaches children how to share. It develops their self-esteem and confidence, and helps them to express emotion and to learn empathy and affection. They are also taught more difficult lessons: conflict resolution, cause and effect (consequences), as well as problem-solving and decision-making,’ says Julie. It also helps them to understand roles in a group (such as leader versus follower). Ultimately, it is through play that children begin to acquire the basics of socially acceptable adult behaviour while developing their personality traits.
Feeling Left Out
It can be very painful for parents to watch a child struggling to connect with their peers. Seeing a child’s sadness at being excluded from play or trying to deal with feelings of isolation can leave the parent feeling ostracised as well. According to Julie, signs that your youngster may be having problems fitting in can include a change in usual behaviour patterns (such as becoming withdrawn), reporting ‘sick’ symptoms as a way to avoid social contact with other children, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities and acting out (temper tantrums or aggressive and disruptive behaviour).
Another useful way to assess your child’s sociability is to observe your little one during interactive play. At pre-school level, if your child is physically distant (avoids others, fails to make eye contact or smile, doesn’t easily accept or offer physical touch), it can be an early sign of social vulnerability. At primary-school level, these signs are usually clearer: your child may express a lack of interest in making friends or exhibit cognitive immaturity by not noticing how they are perceived by others. From an early age, parents need to help their kids engage with their peers
Social skills don’t come as naturally to children as we may think. From an early age, parents need to help their kids engage with their peers. Here’s how:
- As babies, expose them to group settings where there’ll be kids of all ages, such as the park or family braais
- As toddlers, provide space and play materials for co-operative and imaginative play (building blocks, hand puppets)
- Enrol them in a playgroup when they’re ready
- Organise play dates
- Encourage participation in extracurricular activities
- At all ages, observe your child’s social choices/actions and be available to initiate, facilitate or intervene when conflict arises
- Make your home a welcoming environment where your child feels comfortable and happy to invite friends over.
Despite your best intentions, most children will at some point in their childhood suffer from social anxiety – whether from a change in circumstance, a learning difficulty or a lapse in social judgement. ‘When your children come to you and tell you they are struggling to fit in, understand that this is very hard for them,’ says Julie. ‘Let them know they can trust you by hearing them out, before immediately coming up with solutions, and then provide some reassurance and perspective.’ It may be helpful to get more information from their teacher. Most importantly, your child will learn social skills by watching how you interact with others both inside and outside the home. Turn taking, courtesy, listening skills and a give-and-take approach to engaging with family members will help your child identify vital social cues.