My 5-year-old son struggles when socialising with other kids in groups

I was very embarrassed and I’m sure everyone was thinking he was an ‘awful’ child

Preparing your son in advance of social situations can help them go well

Preparing your son in advance of social situations can help them go well

 

Question: My 5-year-old son struggles with socialising with other kids in groups, especially when we go out to parties or other big group situations. When he is just with me and my husband, he is a delightful happy boy but in a larger group he transforms into a whiney, irritable boy who acts out.

At the weekend we went to his cousin’s party and he spent the whole time being grumpy and out of sorts. When the adults spoke to him he was rude. Then he wouldn’t play with the other kids and got giddy and disruptive.

I was very embarrassed and I’m sure everyone was thinking he was an “awful” child (this is despite the fact that I know he can be so lovely one-to-one). This sort of thing happens most times we bring him out. It is starting to make me feel that I shouldn’t bring him out to group situations as I just know how he will react.

Is there anything I can do in order to relax him in group settings?

Answer: Though some children might appear to do it naturally, learning social skills and getting on with other children is among the most complicated set of skills that young children have to learn. Often it takes lots of time and lots of trial and error. Many children like your son find it easier to relate on a one-to-one basis while group situations make them stressed or anxious.  As they don’t know yet how to manage their feeling, this stress can cause them to act out or misbehave out which makes the social situations harder for them and stressful for parents and adults. At 5 years old your son is still very young and there is a lot you can do to support him.

Tune into your son

In deciding how to help your son the first thing to do is to closely observe him in social situations so you can understand what in particular is challenging for him and so  you can know what support he might need. For example, It could well be that the noise and busyness of social situations overwhelms him so that he feels distressed or on edge. Or it could be that he feels shy or anxious in these contexts, where he can’t answer the questions asked of him and then deals with this stress by becoming giddy. Or it could be that he doesn’t know how to join in with other children playing in the group or that he does not know how to share and then ends up fighting when there is dispute. Indeed it could be many of these things that are happening for him. Once you have a sense of what is going on with him and how he is feeling, acknowledging this can help him feel supported. For example, you might get down to his level, put your arm on his shoulder and whisper “its hard to know who to play with, but stay with mum for a minute and we will find someone”.

Coach your son in how to play with children

Your son is likely to need some support and coaching in managing a group situation. Identify the social skill he might need to learn and coach in how he can do this. For example, you help him to talk to adults by coaching him in how to tell news. “Why not tell aunty Alice about your football match.” Or he is unsure about joining the other children, you might make it easier for him by setting him up with one child close to his age in a game in one part of the room. Or if sharing is difficult you might support the children playing together in a game – “so let’s take turns, J goes first and we wait and watch . . .”. Anticipating issues and getting in early to divert problems is the key to giving him an experience of things going well.

It is useful also to have a back-up plan, in case things become fractious. For example, if you notice your son getting frustrated or about to act out, you might step in to distract him or take him out for a break for a few minutes, before coaching him how to join back in.

Prepare your son in advance

Preparing your son in advance of social situations can help them go well. This might mean rehearsing strategies with him before the social situation – “When you get to Granny’s why don’t you bring your comic, which you can show your cousin.” The key is to be positive, focusing him on what he can do rather than being negative focusing him on what he can’t do. This mean you avoid using lots of don’ts such as “Don’t whine, when we get to Granny’s” or “Don’t fight with your cousin” which can make him defensive and distressed from the outset. Instead tell what you want to happen – “When you get granny’s let’s see how politely you can talk. Granny loves to see your smile.”

There are also lots of excellent children’s books that you read with children that explain social skills in child-centred ways such as the Usbourne first experiences series or the Topsy and Tim books. During  bedtime reading, you can help him rehearse social skills by reading books like this with him.  

Set up playdates for your son

You can also build on your son’s social skills by setting up playdates for him in his home. In his home context where he is likely to be more relaxed it will be easier for him to get on with other children and learn the social skills he might need for dealing the the more challenging situation of big groups and parties. Start with one-to-one play dates when he might be more comfortable and slowly build up to including more children.  Be around to support him during the playdates in case he needs some support or coaching in managing these situations.

– Dr John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He has published 14 books including ‘Positive Parenting: Bringing up responsible, well-behaved and happy children’.  See solutiontalk.ie

– Send your queries to health@irishtimes.com

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