Chloe has many friends. She is 13 years old. Making and keeping a friend was never a problem for her. The phone is ringing at home and her mother is the ‘driver’ around town. Weekends are packed with playdates at home, with many slumber parties happening. Being invited to birthday parties is a weekly event. Chloe’s mother, Julia, is glad that her daughter has many friends.
Dana is not as fortunate as Chloe. Dana is also 13 years old and does not have any friends. Dana is confused and does not understand why other girls in her class avoid her. She used to be the ‘leader’ last year because many of the girls wanted to play the Sims game with her. It seems as if these girls do not want to play her game now. Dana now eats by herself at lunch and plays alone at recess time. She is sad and anxious. Girls do not ask her over for playdates and sleepovers on weekend nights. Her mother, Martha, wonders why this is happening because Dana is so smart, sensitive and deeply wants friends.
These are two very different girls. Chloe has many friends and Dana does not. What is going on here?
Popular children, such as Chloe, are socially competent. People perceive popular children as friendly, sensitive, helpful, thoughtful, caring and fun to be around. These children initiate conversation easily, understand what others think and feel and correctly interpret visual signals, such as responding appropriately to different gestures and facial expressions. Popular children control their emotions and easily engage in conversation in a give-and-take manner.
For the majority of children, good social skills will come easily. However, other children who exhibit difficulties socially may become neglected or even rejected amongst their peers. The following characteristics are typical of children who exhibit low levels of social competence:
• Does not initiate conversations easily
• Often interrupts conversations with peers
• Observes play rather than being a part of the play
• May be physically and verbally aggressive with peers
• Does not understand visual signals, such as facial expressions or gestures
• Thinks that everyone feels as he or she does
• Is typically lonely
• Often says he or she wants to be alone
• Is bossy and domineering during play
• Has trouble knowing what not to talk about in certain settings
• Gets confused when others are talking because he or she does not understand the intent or goal of the conversation
• Talks over people or is too loud
• Talks too much about himself or herself
• Exhibits low frustration and emotional outbursts when in conflict with others
• Only has social interactions with peers through websites and not face-to-face
• Does not have a friendship that is reciprocated
• States that everyone in their class is their friend, even though they are not asked by others for playdates
• Behaves in inappropriate ways in order to make friends, such as giving money to a classmate and possessions
• Has trouble looking at others and maintaining eye contact
• Chooses to play with younger and older children rather than same-age peers
• Chooses to interact with peers who exhibit behavioral and developmental challenges
• Is considered odd, mean, rude or selfish by peers
• Gets invited to birthday parties only when the entire class is invited
• Spends time with others playing video games and watching television
• Criticizes others
• Does not recognize physical boundaries with others (crowds their space)
• Is ignored or excluded by peers at school
• Often cannot keep new friends that he or she makes
• Does not self-correct their errors in behavior or conversation
• Is not cognizant of their tone and volume of voice
Making and keeping friends is critical for all children. Having positive peer relations promotes social competence and this, in turn, supports healthy emotional and social development. Healthy social skills are reinforced when a child interacts positively with their peers and buffers against stress while also enhancing self-esteem. We now know friendships affect a child’s sense of belonging, self-worth and overall happiness. Trust your gut if you think something is a little off with your child. Consult with your child’s pediatrician if you are concerned. Remember that early intervention is everything and will enhance your child’s overall feeling of well-being.
Karen L. Schiltz, Ph.D., is the author of Beyond The Label: A Guide to Unlocking a Child’s Educational Potential (Oxford University Press, September 2011). For more information, visit www.karenschiltz.com.
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