Please picture the following two scenarios, and consider how you would handle it: a) Your child comes home from school saying “I have no friends”; b) Child stays at home every Shabbos, never playing with classmates or neighbors.
These situations are painful for parents to deal with. Dealing with a rejection of one’s child or watching him spend all his time alone in his room can break a parent’s heart. This often evokes much worry, frustration, and helplessness in the parent. However, it need not be so. Indeed, some children have difficulty getting along with others because of various challenges. Yet, with your assistance, they can begin the process of becoming socially successful—creating friendships that are a source of well-being, pride, and identity. I would like to share some general guidelines as to how parents can facilitate this.
- Listen first. When your child complains about his social hardships, listen to his complaints with interest. Try not to give advice before he feels understood. Having his feelings validated and understood may make the child feel better than teaching him how to handle teasing and rejection. The משנה in אבות tells us אל תרצה את חבירו בשעת כעסו ואל תנחמהו בשעה שמתו מוטל לפניו. There is a time and place for everything; sometimes we need to advise and guide; other times, we need to listen.
- Talk with teachers. When a child grumbles about the way he is treated at school, try to obtain an objective opinion. Talk with your son’s Rebbi or teachers to obtain the full picture. In addition to ascertaining the facts, Rabbeim and teachers can also be very helpful with facilitating social relationships. Perhaps they can arrange to pair your child with an appropriate chavrusa or project partner. They can also intervene to boost your child’s popularity by arranging for him to have a leadership role in the class (gabbai, in charge of siyum, etc.). As an aside, where you do need the teacher’s help, it may be a good idea to go the extra mile to help the teacher (e.g., volunteer for special events; send a thank-you note or generous Chanukah/Purim gift).
- Provide socialization opportunities: Parents should reach out to facilitate socialization. Parents can enroll their son in structured group events (e.g., Pirchei groups, Avos Ubonim program, or baseball/basketball leagues). You can also schedule (or for older children, encourage them to take the initiative) one-on-one play dates for Shabbos or Sunday afternoon. If other children are reluctant to come to your home, make it enticing for them by serving delicious nosh or scheduling a fun trip for your child and friend. With younger children, parents should structure the play time in a manner that will help the child succeed. Ideas to structure play time include a) arrange a short play period, b) end the visit when children start becoming bored or restless, c) if necessary, involve yourself in the play and gradually fade as the children can do it on their own.
- Become a social coach: Try to teach children the skills that they lack. Parents can do a great deal to facilitate the social success of their children by recognizing barriers and providing appropriate coaching. Recognizing barriers is key, although it may be difficult and sometimes may require professional help. In any case, keep in mind these general guidelines while coaching your child on a specific skill. a) Teach the skill; b) practice using the skill (role-play); c) make a plan for the child to use it in real life; and d) follow-up with the child afterwards and revise as needed. Most importantly, remember to proceed slowly and balance coaching with much love and acceptance. Finally, praise your child throughout the process: this will provide him with the emotional energy he needs to surmount his barriers.
For example, a shy child who experiences difficulty with meeting children for the first time should gently be taught how to greet other children (say “hi” and smile) and how to make small talk (asking appropriate questions and sharing interests). This teaching should be followed up with a role play—take turns with your child being the greeter and “greetee.” You can then choose small goals together with your child (e.g., ask child to smile and greet one new child each day by saying “hi”). Finally, follow up with your child each night by having a friendly conversation about his day; discuss how many people he spoke to and how it went. Remember, continue to praise the child and make statements like “I love the way how you went over to the other kid to talk to him.” Through experiencing success with small goals, your child will gain confidence and continue with longer conversations that will eventually lead toward positive relationships.
- Seek professional help when necessary: Some children may need specialized help in developing appropriate social skills. There are many trained specialists in this area. Relief Resources is a community based referral agency to assist in finding someone appropriate 718-431-9501.