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Parenting--Toddlers/Infants/Pre-Schoolers/Helping a pre-school child develop social skills

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Question
Dear James,

Our son is 5 and currently attends kindergarten. He's an intelligent boy, really interested in the world and what's going on around him, but at the same time has difficulties interacting socially with other children and fitting in with the group.
Although he has been attending daycare since he was only 1, he hasn't really learnt to overcome this difficulty. He's a highly sensitive child , a bit shy and introverted and it takes him some time to "break" the ice and make new friends.
He's been attending his current kindergarten for 2 and a half years now and has a little group of friends now, with whom he sometimes also plays outside school. What I have observed is that, whilst they can play quite well in a 1 to 1 situation, they tend to isolate him and tease him a bit when there's a few of them. He sometimes doesn't even realize because, although he's quite mature and autonomous in some aspects (he's an only child and he's used to interacting with adults), he can be very naive in others and gets manipulated by the more streetwise children. Or those with a more dominant personality who like telling him what to do and try to take total control of the game. There's one particular boy, who's almost a year older and more mature than the others (he was diagnosed as being a gifted child), but his intellectual capacity often manifests itself in the form of a mean streak. And he particularly likes to manipulate the other, more naive children into turning against my son, isolating him, teasing or sometimes even hitting him. The worst thing is that my son doesn't always react to this because he somehow feels that his friends cannot do him any wrong and it wouldn't be right to get angry at them or hit back. He's not aggressive at all, which in itself is a good thing, but I think he needs to learn to defend himself (not only in the physical sense) and also to question the fact if his friends are really such friends. He's not very open to the possibility of making new friends and getting out of his comfort zone and we would like to help him overcome this difficulty. Up to now, his social situation was also limited by the linguistic aspect (we live in a bilingual town, on the French/Spanisch border and some of the kids at his school don't speak Spanish, his mother tongue). However, now he's mastered French well enough to be able to play and interact. But he still feels more comfortable playing with children who speak Spanish.
The other thing is that he's incredibly imaginative and prone to daydreaming. He loves role plays and gets immensely involved.This makes him lose touch with reality and be only half aware of what's going on around him. As a consequence, he's often the last one  when it comes to competitions, team games etc. and he sometimes doesn't realize when the others are taking advantage of his distraction to tease him or cheat. His dad and I are trying to limit his tendency to isolate himself and get lost in his imagination by refusing to engage in his role plays (although we do realize they also have advantages). We have also decided to stop him watching cartoons for a while, or at least drastically limit his access to them, as they feed his imagination even more (not as a punishment, we simply told him the DVD player broke down and it's going to take a while to fix it). We have also starter sending him to karate lessons, so that he can learn to feel more comfortable in his own body and more confident when playing the more "physical" games boys often like to engage in. We also came to the conclusion that his lack of self confidence when it comes to interacting in a group might be related to a problem of dependence: my husband and I are his only close role models (our extended families live far away and we only see them a few times a year) and we are both working, so, at least during the week , we have to act to quite a tight schedule and often end up doing a lot of things for him and not giving him enough space to do them his own way. I also realized that, in order to compensate for not being able to spend as much time with him as I would like to during the week, I have been overprotecting him which basically results in me giving him to many "instructions" and doing too many things for him. We have started to act to change this negative tendency, by encouraging him to do more by himself (mainly small, everyday activities and helping out with minor household chores). At the moment he's trying to resist it, I guess because he has got used to referring to us in everything he does,but we can also see it makes him very happy when he manages to learn something new and do things out of his own initiative. Another factor that might hinder his social development is the fact that he's quite an apprehensive child. He's, for instance, terrified of darkness. We have tried to help him overcome this fear, by telling stories or playing games with the aim of demystifying it, but they haven't proved very successful so far. The other thing is that he usually wakes up in the middle of the night and then comes to our bed and sleeps there until the morning. We realized that we might have been aggravating this problem by how we organized his bedtime routine (we used to stay by his side until he fell asleep after having finished reading him his bedtime story). We decided to stop doing so and leave when the story has finished, which he accepted reluctantly. Despite this, however, he hasn't given up on his night visits yet. Perhaps we need more time to see the positive results of these changes. We'd like to consult you, however, on whether you think this is the right course of action and ask you for advice on what more we could do to help him gain more adaptability and independence, socially speaking. We have found an article on the internet about a therapy technique which proved successful with children who had difficulties socializing (called self-instructions) and we're wondering whether it would be worth implementing in his case. We really feel this situation is calling for a change. Our son's going to primary school next year (and so are his friends), and we'd like to help him adapt to this new situation as well as possible and help him have a fresh start there. We'll be really greatful for any tips suggestions you could share.

Best wishes,

Isabelle

Answer
Hello Isabelle,

Your son sounds like a delightful boy.

But I think much of what is a concern is his temperament. He is a boy who is more introverted, slow to warm up socially, and enjoys solitary play. These are not bad things; they are just the way he is.

But I understand that you would like him to be more socially adept and independent. That's fine, I'm sure you can help him to be more outgoing. But he has a great many assets as an imaginative boy with the ability to interact with adults.

What you are doing is fine. I think it is always helpful with more introverted and timid children to give them the opportunities -- along with your encouragement -- to spend time with other children, especially in groups. While you can be aware that he is not quite so skilled in social situations, you don't want to shield him or allow his timidity to stop him from being involved with others. Nor should you label him as a shy or timid boy.

He will find his way in the world as he gets older and becomes more comfortable with who he is. He may surprise you as an older adolescent or adult by being more social than he is now. But allow him to have time alone to exercise his imagination and use his talents in creative ways.

Feel free to email me back with other questions.

Best,

James Windell  

Parenting--Toddlers/Infants/Pre-Schoolers

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James Windell

Expertise

I can answer questions related to normal child development, disturbed behavior and how to provide appropriate guidance and discipline.

Experience

I've been a clinical psychologist in a juvenile court, worked in school settings, been a child psychotherapist in a private psychiatric clinic and consulted with schools, courts, hospitals and daycare centers.

Organizations
American Psychological Association
Michigan Psychological Association

Publications
I have been a columnist with the Oakland Press (Oakland County, MI) for 21 years writing a weekly column called Coping With Kids, which is also published weekly in the Staten Island Advance. I have been a mental health columnist with the Detroit Free Press and a columnist for Working Mother Magazine. In addition, I have published articles in professional journals. I have published 16 books, among them are "8 Weeks to a Well-Behaved Child" (IDG Books), "Discipline: A Sourcebook of 50 Failsafe Techniques for Parents" (IDG Books); "Children Who Say No When You Want Them to Say Yes" (IDG Books), "What You Need to Know About Ritalin" (Bantam Books) "6 Steps to an Emotionally Intelligent Teenagers" (John Wiley & Sons), "The Fatherstyle Advantage" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) and "Defusing High Conflict Divorce" (Impact Publishers). My latest parenting book (2012) is "The Everything Child Psychology and Development Book." Articles about my work with parents has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Sun Times, the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press. My website at Jimwindell.com includes more information about me, my books and includes many columns I've written.

Education/Credentials
B.A. in Psychology from Wayne State University
M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Oakland University

Awards and Honors
Best Educational Program by Juvenile and Family Court Judges Association (National award for the development of a parent training program for parents of delinquent teenagers. Beth Clark Service Award from the Michigan Psychological Association.

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