"Everybody hates me"
"The other kids are picking on me."
"I don't have any friends"
These are words that would make any parent feel both sad and powerless as to how to help their child who just doesn't seem to fit in. And it does seem that children who have ADHD or other learning disabilities are more susceptible to having interpersonal difficulties. There can be many reasons for these difficulties including the following:
- Not being able to read the non-verbal signals of others such as facial expressions, gestures, and body language. They may also be unaware of how their own non-verbal communication comes across.
- They do not understand the unwritten rules of personal space boundaries.
- The child is impulsive and does not understand the consequences of his or her actions sometimes even after it is too late.
- Some children may lack the empathy required to understand how their words and actions make other people feel.
- They may have a different "rhythm" than other children, with either talking too fast or doing everything at a frenzied pace. Or else some children are so unaware of time that they are frequently disorganized and not ready for scheduled activities when everyone else is, leading to irritation for those who are kept waiting.
- The child may not understand the sequence of give and take behaviors needed to take turns, share, or partake in a conversation.
The most critical underlying problem for kids who have trouble fitting in with other kids is that they lack the awareness of how they are coming across. Without that ability to accurately gage their part in social interactions, the child who doesn't fit in may only focus upon the outcome. They may tell you they have no friends but they will not understand why. Quite often the reason is internalized as "I am not likeable" or else, "There is something wrong with me." It is difficult too because social interactions are quite often complex with many subtle nuances and unwritten rules which are critical for sustaining connection with another. If the child does not know these rules they will be vulnerable to social exclusion.
So what can a parent or caregiver do to help the child who is having trouble making friends and getting along with others?
- Make it easy for your child to talk to you. If they feel they are not being accepted elsewhere then it is all the more important for you to be accepting and non-judgmental about their difficulties. This does not mean that you will not be discussing ways to help the child improve. It just means that you convey that they are loved despite their challenges.
- Emphasize your child's strengths by pointing out the social skills they do have. Your child will want to know what things they are doing right in developing friendships.
- Videotape some of your child's interactions with others so that you can both see some of the issues firsthand. This will allow your child to be an observer to his or her own actions.
- Role play social scenarios where your child has difficulties. Some possible vignettes may include meeting someone for the first time, how to respond to teasing, how to ask someone to play, or how to join a group of kids who are already playing. Try to be as natural as possible in playing the role of another child. Coach your child as to which of his or her responses would keep the communication going and which ones would likely cause them to be ignored or excluded.
- Focus on teaching one social skill at a time. Some of these skills may include teaching your child to read facial expressions, gestures, and body language. You can use videos or photos to help with this. Show visuals of different non-verbal communication and ask your child what they mean. Another social skill is learning about physical space and boundaries. Provide visual cues by drawing a chalk circle around your child to show what is meant by personal space. Show how much space should be between him or her and another person. Explain why others may interpret some actions as invading their personal space. Other topics for discussion can be learning how to take turns, how to show empathy, and how to be better oganized so that he or she is in sync with peers. For some specific ideas on how to teach some of these social skills there are many resources to choose from. One excellent resource is a book called, "Helping the Child who Doesn't Fit In by clinical psychologists, Stephen Nowicki Jr., and Marshall P. Duke.
- Help your child to focus upon making one good friend at a time. It can seem overwhelming for a child to think they have to be everybody's friend or to feel bad if they are not "popular." Stress the fact that the number of friends one has is less important than the quality of friendship. To have one good friend is better than having ten acquaintances you don't know very well.
It can be very difficult for the child who is trying to make friends but just doesn't know how. It can also be emotionally painful to feel excluded, ignored, or teased for being different. It can make a parent feel powerless in not knowing what to do to help their child through this. I am hoping that my suggestions give hope to parents and caregivers that there are concrete things one can do to help their child to learn the necessary social skills to build and sustain relationships. This teaching is sometimes more important than the academic lessons as social skills will be something your child needs for the rest of his or her life.
And now it is your turn. Is your child having social difficulties at home or at school? What strategies have helped? Do you have any suggestions or tips for other parents who wish to help their child navigate the realm of social interactions? We would love to hear them!