Words By Caroline Maguire, Author of Why Will No One Play with Me? and guest speaker at Academy at the Lakes on Wednesday, September 18. Learn more about the event here. Caroline Maguire is a passionate personal coach, author, teacher, and speaker whose work has inspired important conversations about social skills at elementary and middle schools and in homes all across the country, Caroline Maguire believes all children can shine. Her work is critical to parents everywhere who support children with executive function challenges struggling to show their best selves.
You watch your child as other kids seem to ignore him as if he is invisible. They don’t ever throw him the ball. He wants friends, but when they come over, he does things to alienate himself like bossing them around. You begin to wonder whether your child “won’t” play with them, or can’t?” As a parent, you wonder if your child is just willful, stubborn, defiant, or maybe even lazy. You’ve had endless conversations with him about turning in homework, or working better with his teachers because he’s not doing well at school. He’s been struggling with friends as well, and you’re not sure why. You know something is going on, but just can’t decide whether it’s enough yet to take action.
You’ve bought planning calendars, organized social outings, and involved the help of his teachers, all in hopes of turning a corner. Your gut tells you that your child is struggling, in pain, and that no amount of cajoling is going to help—he seems to be struggling and cannot make friends.
One of the most challenging times for a parent is to decide when to step in. When it comes to other areas of a child’s development, such as first steps, potty training, reading words, etc., a wait and see approach works because, in these instances, time really allows the child to develop and meet expectations.
Naturally, there are times when a child may be stubborn or not want to comply with what is being asked, but mostly the struggle comes with children who have executive function deficits and social skills challenges. In these instances, the child does not know how to create the socially positive behaviors that the world desires. He or she will struggle to organize and function in a typical classroom setting. These milestones do not come naturally with time. Time only deepens the emotional toll of falling behind at school and being left out of meaningful social activities. These problems can lead to depression and anxiety.
How to Move Forward
Moving forward means recognizing there is more to it than willful disobedience, bad manners, or laziness. It doesn’t mean you need to let things slide, but there is clearly an ongoing challenge that needs to be addressed sooner, rather than later. Trust your gut. Now is not the time to take a wait and see attitude.
Below the surface of a child’s behavior are the forces and factors that drive it. Brain-based executive functions are the hub of the brain. They control self regulation and reading the room. They allow you to control your emotions rather than those emotions controlling you. Brain-based executive functions allow you to pay attention and become more self aware. If your child has weak executive functions, he may be struggling and cannot produce the social behaviors that help him make and keep friends. Coaching your child is going to take you deeper into the situation and your child’s actual experience. It will help you both develop the skills needed to foster change and growth.
Listen to your child when they are angry, lonely, or frustrated. There’s no need to confront the situation, just let your child be heard. You’ll learn in the coaching process these conversations will be the beginning of thoughtful reflection, goal-setting, and skill-building. This will be your foundation for transformation.
How do you know if your child Needs Help with Social Skills?
If your child can produce the following seven social behaviors, then he can make friends, fit in, work in a group, join and thrive in activities, and down the line—work successfully with others in the workplace. Think about the people you know who struggle to adapt and who alienate others.
These 7 behavioral skills are what everyone needs to be socially successful.
Manage emotions rather than let them manage you. The ability to realize when you are experiencing “big emotions” and adapt, rather than expecting everyone to change for you. You need to be able to respond to disappointment and have coping techniques to respond to flooding emotions without becoming overwhelmed.
Read the room. What’s the prevailing vibe or emotional tone of those present? Is there an activity or conversation underway? Is it structured, with expectations about your role and how to participate? Or is it less structured, allowing for a more casual and spontaneous way for you to join in? What do you need to do to adjust your energy level, tone, or expectations to match the setting? What would others expect of you in this setting?
Meet people halfway. This could mean introducing yourself, starting a conversation, or answering a question when you’re asked. Even just a smile and friendly acknowledgment can be enough to signal to another person that you’re sociable and open for business. Sometimes halfway means physically stepping forward to be social rather than hanging back on the edges, or just staying home.
Understand social cues and unspoken rules and be ready to change your behavior in response to them. This involves reading people’s facial expressions and body language and being aware of your own. Verbal cues might seem easier, but they require that you pay attention to what others are saying, which can be challenging if you routinely tune out others and prefer to stay tuned in to your own thoughts.
Learn to walk in someone else’s shoes, or see things through their eyes. To understand someone else’s perspective means to understand, to some degree, their motives and reactions. This includes their reactions to you. You need to understand that every behavior and every action you take makes an impression on other people, and they operate and react to you with those thoughts in mind.
Be flexible and adaptive. Don’t be the Rule Police. Accept that you are not always right. Understand that part of your social role is to compromise and recognize that at times it’s appropriate to place friendship or the larger group ahead of being right. Don’t be argumentative. This includes knowing when to drop the debate and accept no for an answer.
Know your audience and adapt your communication to be appropriate. For a five-year-old, this means filtering what is public and private information and learning not to insult teachers and friends by saying thoughtless things that hurt feelings or ruffle feathers, like “Your dress makes you look fat,” or “My mom says you are lazy.” A ten-year-old needs to be able to anticipate or predict what friends want to hear about what they find interesting, and what they would like to talk about. You may also need to adapt your tone, stories, and other information you choose to share, depending on the age and interests of those around you.
Chances are your child faces some challenges in at least a few of these essential social skills—that’s why you’re seeking support. We would not expect a child to read by osmosis, or to learn to swim without someone coaching and guiding him. For many kids with executive function weaknesses, social skills do not come easily. Rather than staying lost in the is it “can’t” versus “won’t” cycle—trust your gut and help your child learn just as you always have from his very first milestone.
For more information about supporting your child, visit my website at www.carolinemaguireauthor.com. Order your copy of Why Will No One Play With Me? now. And attend my speaking event at Academy at the Lakes on Wednesday, September 18 in the Gym beginning at 7pm. Download the flyer here.