A child’s social competence is most simply defined as their ability to play while keeping friends. If the other kids are happy when your child shows up, they want to continue playing with them and the play tends to go well most of the time then their social skills are likely developing at least fairly well. If other kids shun them, stop playing often and the play breaks down repeatedly then their social skills may be an issue. The idea is to watch the child in play, and look for patterns that cause the difficulties. Ask his teachers and other caregivers for their input about his play.
Across the preschool years notable social skills include turn taking and later, sharing, listening to others, carrying small then more complex conversations, shifting from parallel to interactive to group play, later building play scenarios and entering into on-going play. In elementary school, personal space issues, negotiation skills, conflict resolution skills, managing competition, perspective taking and empathy for others all become increasingly important.
Children who struggle with these skills may benefit from more playtime, guided practice and additional coaching activities. Good parenting books include:
- Raise Your Child’s Social IQ by Cohen
- Teaching Your Child the Language of Social Success by Duke
- The Unwritten Rules of Friendship by Elman
If you have questions about social skills, please join me on facebook for a parenting chat every Tuesday night from 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. EST.
Dear Dr. Rene,
My two-year-old daughter is happy, friendly and affectionate around adults, but, aside from a couple of her friends who recently moved away, she just does not seem to like other children at the moment! When I tell her that we are going somewhere to see her friend(s), she tells me that she wants just her and I to go. When we are in the company of other children, she gets upset if they come anywhere near her. While her friends want to hug, hold hands or play together, my daughter doesn’t really want anything to do with them. I stay at home with her, she does not go to school yet, but we do go to classes and meet up with friends on a regular basis. I’m hoping that this a quick passing phase, but was wondering if you have any advice on how I should handle this behavior.
I know it can be difficult to watch your child struggle as she learns to be social. I want to first latch on to that she is friendly and affectionate towards adults, and you mentioned her having a few friends that recently moved. These points highlight that she has the capacity for being social. That she’s even had one recognized friendship at this little age is a positive. I would try to figure out if there was something particular she liked about the friends that moved away and look for that in new playmates. While I wouldn’t force the hand holding or hugs, I would continue to give lots of opportunities for play with her same age peers. Attend playgroups or gym classes, go to the playgrounds and take group swim lessons. Continue to model being social by greeting others, inviting them to join you at activities and talking about concepts like taking turn and sharing. Occasionally, host others for play at your house so she can have practice at being social in more comfortable surroundings.
Many two year olds still tend to engage in parallel play, playing near other children more than with them. By three to four years old, most of them move to more interactive play. It may be that she is simply still at parallel play. She may prefer adults as they lead play easily and offer good ideas. Adults are also more reciprocal than other two year olds with turntaking and sharing and less likely to provide conflicts. It may be helpful to try playdates with a few slightly older children in the neighborhood.
When she does request to be just the two of you, agree when that was already the plan. If it wasn’t, validate her request by saying something like, “I know you want it to be just mommy, but today we are meeting Johnny and his mom at the park.” I wouldn’t ignore her request, hear her first. Then calmly let her know the plan. I would think this will be a passing phase, but it’s something to keep in mind moving forward. I am hopeful for you both that she will find same-age friends easily when a good match presents itself.
You might also read Just You and Me by McBratney and talk about how the gosling wanted to be alone with the big goose, but how nice it was they shared their space with the other animals who wanted out of the rain.