by: Bridget Topousis, OTD, OTR/L
If you’ve ever wondered, “Is my child social enough?” – or even, “Is my child overly social?” – you’re not alone. As we watch our young children grow and develop alongside other children, these are natural questions to have as a parent. Although it’s within our nature as human beings to compare, it is also important to remember that children are developing socially at different times and at different rates, and our #1 job as parents is to meet them where they’re at and support their social skill development in ways that are meaningful and fulfilling for them as individuals.
Some kids are naturally inclined to seek out more social opportunities with others – whether it be with a friend at school, a teacher, or another child they just met at the park. These are our “social-seekers.” They have a greater threshold for social interaction, meaning it takes more interaction to fill up their cup and satiate their social needs, so to speak. Social-seekers will naturally look for and find more opportunities to connect with others in a social way – through conversation, humor, silliness, or other types of behavior.
On the flip side, some others need less social interaction to fill their cups – we call these children “social-savorers.” They have a lower (or limited) threshold for social interaction, meaning that is takes less interaction to fill their cups and meet their social needs. These kids often prefer to reserve their social interaction “quota” for more structured opportunities across their day – such as during classroom morning meeting time or lunchtime – and they look forward to alone time during other parts of the day.
What Creates a Seeker or Savorer?
What shapes these social differences in young children? Many factors – including learning styles, developmental differences (e.g., differences in speech and language skills), mental health conditions (e.g. anxiety), and individual differences (formed by our personalities, experiences, and backgrounds) – may influence a child’s social skills. These individual social differences are important to be aware of and to understand, since we are all wired differently as human beings and subsequently bring our own individual differences to our social environments – whether it be at home, in school, or in the community.
Why Be Social?
Being “social” (*to whatever degree is attainable and fulfilling for your child*) is important and meaningful for young children because it lays the foundation for the development of their social skills throughout life. Starting at birth, a child’s social skills will first grow through one-on-one connections and interactions with their caregivers. It isn’t until later that these social skills may expand to more people, such as within a small or large group (as we typically wouldn’t expect a child to demonstrate a specific skill within a group before they can use this skill with one other person). These skills are important because they support our ability to successfully interact in a variety of environments throughout life. And furthermore, it is essential to name that research confirms young children develop many of these lifelong social skills through PLAY!
Which specific social skills are we talking about? This table highlights the social skills that children have the opportunity to gain from 1:1 play, small group play, and large group play:
– Sustained eye contact with play partner
– Joint attention
– Shared enjoyment
– Reciprocal turn-taking
– Reciprocal social conversation (the “back-and-forth”)
– Practice reading non-verbal cues of only one other person
– Practice making comments, requests, or asking questions
– Practice social problem-solving as it relates to one conversation topic
– Play scheme may shift more quickly than it would in a group
– Turn-taking with several play partners
– Creating and following group norms and rules
– Practice reading non-verbal cues of group members (e.g. facial expressions, body language)
– Practice making comments and/or asking questions of others
– Practice taking others’ perspectives
– Shifting between leading and following the group’s plan
– Cause-and-effect social reasoning
– Social pragmatics (i.e. the social use of language and how people interact with others)
– Focus on rule-based play reflecting the group’s interest areas
– Group collaboration
– Identifying and shifting between individual roles within the group
– Mental flexibility
– Social pragmatics
– Reading non-verbal cues of group members and appropriately applying cues to group plan
– “Code Switching,” or changing language for the listener or situation
– Developing skills of sharing with other group members with delayed gratification
– Social negotiation skills
– Building grit while persisting toward long-term group goals
– Developing Theory of Mind skills (i.e. the ability to think about mental states – including emotions – of your own and those of others)
– Learning values of teamwork, compromise, cooperation, and morality
Disclaimer: The social skills presented in the table are being included with the type of play (i.e., 1:1, small group play, large group play) that they are most often associated with. However, these skills may be observed across several different types of play and do not necessarily belong to the one type of play listed above.
Hesitancies and Fears
It is also common for children to have hesitancies or fears related to being social or joining social situations. Reasons behind these fears can vary from child to child, as well as situation to situation. Fears could be rooted in previous social experiences (e.g., being left out of a game, causing them to fear rejection; bullying/not being accepted by their peers; etc.), anxiety or excessive worrying, or simply a preference for solitude or more “alone time.” Research tells us that children who consistently withdraw socially are at a higher risk for a range of negative outcomes, including socio-emotional difficulties (e.g., anxiety, low self-esteem, depressive symptoms, and internalizing problems), peer difficulties (e.g., rejection, victimization, and poor friendship quality), and school difficulties (e.g., poor-quality teacher-child relationships, academic difficulties, and school avoidance) (Annual Review of Psychology, Rubin et al., 2009). Fortunately, there are ways parents can respond to counteract these risks.
What Parents Can Do
Research has shown that parents who do the following things can actually help their children become less socially-inhibited and more socially-skilled during early childhood:
(Rubin 2002; Rubin et al. 2001, 2002).
Here are a few key strategies to keep in mind as you stay sensitive to your child’s social needs and support their social development throughout childhood:
Note: Find the full list of books at the end of this post.
As parents, we always want to encourage our children to express themselves and their own unique characteristics and needs – while also encouraging and lifting them up in the areas where they may need additional support. If your child is showing differences or difficulties with applying social skills (e.g., difficulty making and/or keeping friends, entering into or interacting within groups, etc.), additional support is available. Depending on the nature of your concerns, a referral to Children’s Mental Health, Speech Therapy, or Occupational Therapy may be appropriate for your child. Our CORE Navigators at St. David’s Center are always here to speak with you more about your specific concerns and goals for your child.
CORE: Central Office of Referrals and Enrollment
Bridget Topousis has been an occupational therapist for 10 years. At St. David’s Center she works with children and families on everything from identifying and treating sensory processing differences in young children to developing executive functioning strategies with adolescents. She has special interest and training in the areas of motor incoordination and dyspraxia, handwriting skill foundations and remediation, multi-disciplinary assessment teaming, and teaching and learning with occupational therapy graduate students and course instruction.
Here are some recommendations for books related to making and keeping friends for children:
How to Be a Friend: A Guide to Making Friends and Keeping Them by Laurene Krasny Brown
Join In and Play (Learning to Get Along) by Cheri J. Meiners
Making Friends by Fred Rogers
Forever Friends Club by Gaurav Bhatnagar
Teach Your Dragon to Make Friends by Steve Herman
Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends by Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore and Christine McLaughlin
Social Skills Activities for Kids: 50 Fun Exercises for Making Friends, Talking and Listening, and Understanding Social Rules by Natasha Daniels
Here are some recommendations for books related to anxiety in children:
Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes
Wilma Jean – the Worry Machines by Julia Cook
What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dawn Huebner
Jul. 21, 2023
Jan. 03, 2023