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Improve Your Child’s Social Skills: Navigating Negative Social Interactions

Here’s a Story About a Little Boy Named Jake…

Jake, who is currently seven years old, has always struggled to “fit in” with the other children. Jake is extremely bright and tends to have a verbal discourse that is well above the level of his peers. He also has sensory issues which can lead him to have difficulties with personal space, volume control, and controlling his physical movements.

Jake’s parents, aware of his challenges in these domains, have worked hard to help their son. They have changed their approach to parenting (Purposeful Parenting), gotten him appropriate services, and have engaged a social worker to help develop his social skills.

Recently, Jake’s mother shared this story, through tears, frustration, and heartbreak.

Jake was playing very nicely with several peers when another boy joined their group, a child who had previously been quite “mean” to Jake in the past, calling him bad names and refusing to play with him. Jake observed the children and, using all the social skills he had learned, stated, “that looks like fun, can I play too?”

He was denied entrance to the game. Jake tried again, still using his well-learned and practiced social skills, stating, “I know how to play that game and I promise to follow the rules, can I play too?” Again, this one child refused Jake.

How Can You Support Your Child in These Situations?

Jake used appropriate social skills, he made all the right overtures, but he was still thwarted in his efforts. And this happens all the time, to children, teens, and even adults. We do everything “right” and it still goes all “wrong.”

How can this negative experience be turned into a positive learning experience?

First of all, as is almost always the case with young children, Jake’s mother was much more upset by this interaction than Jake was. Try to remember not to impose your own emotional reactions onto your child. A purposeful parenting doesn’t react (no matter how emotional in the moment) but is intentional in both words and actions.

Process the Situation with Your Child

Was there something they could have done differently or was this an example where it was out of their control due to the responses of another? You can only control your own behaviors and reactions, not the behaviors and reactions of others; useful lesson kids can learn at a very young age that will help them for the rest of their lives!

In Jake’s case, the conversation turned to why he wanted to play with those children if that one child wasn’t being nice. And Jake, like a typical seven-year-old, stated that the game looked like fun. His mother, applying all of her learned skills, distracted Jake by engaging him in another fun game.

“Negative interactions are an opportunity to teach kids resilience.”

It hurts though. When a child, particularly one like Jake who must work at it, applies correct social skills and is still thwarted in his efforts, it is discouraging. And tempting to label the other child as mean, (which he may very well be)!

But Jake couldn’t control how this child reacted to him. He could only control how he behaved and how he reacted to this negative interaction.

Have Empathy for Your Child in These Situations

Share with them that you understand their feelings are hurt and that you feel sad too. It can be easy for adults to diminish a child’s feelings by saying something like, “just go play with other kids.”

Instead, try to build up their confidence that they used good social skills and you are proud of the effort they made. Remind them that they did everything they could do to make the situation go right, and maybe next time, with different kids, it will.

Distract young kids with another game. Talk with older kids about the courage it takes to walk away from kids who aren’t being nice and finding a group of friends that treat you well.

You can make all the right turns, and still get lost. And that is incredibly frustrating! Sometimes, getting lost is how we learn different routes though. Ones that aren’t on Google maps!

Navigating social interactions is a lifelong task. Yes, it would be great if by using well-developed social skills all kids were included and everyone was nice all the time. The reality is, that just isn’t the case. Not on the playground and not in the grown-up world either.

Negative interactions are an opportunity to teach kids resilience, the ability to get back up when you are knocked down and try again. Or try with a different group of kids. Children need confidence in themselves to be resilient, and, as painful as it is in the moment, negative peer interactions can help children develop that part of social skills too.

Click here for more content by Dr. Terri James!

Dr. Terri James
Terri James has a Bachelor of Science degree in Child and Family Studies from Cornell University and a Doctor of Philosophy in Clinical and School Psychology from Hofstra University. Dr. James specializes in the assessment of children with learning issues and in helping children, school and parents plan appropriately for the child’s success.


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