The start of summer (and holiday weekends, like the one approaching) is typically seen as a time of exuberance and possibilities. No more school bells or buses, late-night homework, or after-school activities… Just time in the sun with friends. Not to mention, this summer has marked a time when so many of us are able to get back to more normal behavior. All sounds great, right?
Not necessarily. Some kids are struggling. Do you suspect your child is hiding out? For example, you notice your son comes home early from things, does not reach out to anyone, and spends much of his time playing video games. Your daughter seems to be sad and anxious, and you fear that if you broach the topic of camps and activities, you will be greeted with a flat refusal.
Children missed out on the social interactions that build relationship skills.
This is an unfortunate fallout from the pandemic. Not everyone is excited to return to “normal.” Some kids struggled to join in before the pandemic and may have sunk further into their own bubbles. The wall of opposition—shrugs, eye-rolling, or tantrums—is usually a sign that your child is struggling to surface in this brave new world.
Ongoing isolation caused some children to withdraw into their inner worlds and do something called “scripting.” An example of scripting is when a child can replay an entire episode of a favorite show in their mind word for word. Or they replay daydreams in their head over and over. It’s a comforting way to block out things, yet the child may be missing out on a chance to interact with other kids.
How to help your child navigate social interactions.
Relationships have changed in ways we could not have predicted. Many children and teenagers are finding that their friends have changed, groups have changed, and people no longer share common interests. Some kids have matured, while others have not. One of the things that happens to our kids is they get frustrated, and they don’t know how to deal with those feelings, and they might act out. As with you and me, children share more when they feel heard and understood.
1. Start with small conversations.
It’s easy to be rebuffed by your child, but by surrendering the conversation, you leave your child without critical guidance. Start by finding a consistent time or a positive place to talk. Break up the routine. Spend time with your child one-on-one without siblings, and give your child the space to hear that you care and that you are worried. This time together will help your child feel comfortable opening up to you. Don’t impose your goals saying, “I know you aren’t joining in, or I know you don’t want to do any activities.” Do not assume you know why your child is avoiding joining in but rather ask her what is going on and try to collaborate in small conversations.
2. Reflect, clarify, and be curious.
Paraphrasing and repeating back what your child says demonstrates empathy and helps clarify both of your concerns (this is a key component of active listening). For example, he might declare, “People should invite me to play—I shouldn’t have to approach them.” Reflect this statement back to him: “What I hear you saying is that you won’t approach anyone; they must come to you.” By summarizing and repeating his statements, you allow your child to clarify, share more information, and to tell his interpretation of the statement. By being curious and trying to understand his perspective, you invite him to be comfortable opening up to you.
3. Partner and problem solve.
When your child or teen believes you are a partner, they can lower their guard, engage more readily in the coaching process, commit to developing their social skills, and invest in their own success. When you allow for a two-way conversation, your child will be more comfortable opening up. Having a calm, empathetic, and open conversation—even in the heat of the moment—allows your child to know that in the future, he can count on you as a partner rather than a judge.
4. Which social skills are missing?
Start by telling yourself that your child may be hiding out because this is hard, and they may not have the skills to navigate these situations. We can all remember a time when we had to cross a room to speak to people we didn’t know or felt a nuanced and subtle slight. Due to social distancing, children have missed some of the natural progressions—the small and big social milestones that help us learn to connect. Your child may have struggled before COVID with fitting in, but now is the opportunity to identify which key social-emotional skills to work on such as chatting, approaching others, keeping a game going, reading the room, etc.
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Pair the social-emotional skills you are working on with low-key, fun opportunities to build confidence. There are valuable social skills that come from interacting in a less-structured environment. Make this practice a game by including supportive opportunities with close friends, family, cousins, younger or older children, or a group. This will help her get out of her “own-world” thoughts and practice key social skills such as making conversation, joining a group, adapting, reading the room, making eye contact. This can help boost your child’s confidence since now they have experienced demonstrating these skills and can work out the kinks as they transition back into less supportive environments.
Children missed out on the social interactions that build relationship skills. Now is the critical time to learn and practice how to reach out, join in, and nurture and navigate relationships.