Does My Child Have a Social Challenge? 18 Red Flags Every Parent Must Know
As parents or teachers, we may be concerned about a child’s social skills because we see that he’s suffering — perhaps he’s often punished in school for misbehavior or he’s socially isolated or even bullied by his peers.
Sometimes it’s difficult to put a finger on exactly what the problem is but he seems out of place within his peer group. We should never dismiss or ignore the feeling that something is not right. Parental intuition is one of our most powerful tools — it’s how we can empathize with our children and attempt to assist them in overcoming their challenges.
OK, so how do you decide whether it’s actually a social challenge or just his maturity level or his unique personality?
Here is a list of “red flags” to look out for. If you recognize one or more of these red flags, it may be prudent to consult with someone who specializes in remediating social cognition and social skills. (Keep in mind that many of these red flags are significant only with children ages 9 and above.)
#1: Does your child have real friends?
Once they are in third or fourth grade, most children have classmates whom they consider friends. Your child may say he has friends and even give you a long list. But that may be due to his lack of understanding of what a real friend is.
How do you know if your child has friends? Besides gathering information from his teachers, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does he get together with anyone outside of school?
- If he does get together with another child, is it only when he invites someone else? Does he ever receive an invitation?
- Is it with another child who also has social challenges?
- Is it a younger or older boy, but not a boy his age?
- Is it a boy who lives on the block but not a boy from his class?
- Is it only when his mother arranges a playdate for him?
Similarly, if your child keeps trying to invite the most popular child of the class to his home and keeps getting rejected, this may mean that he’s not successfully interpreting his social experiences in order to learn from them.
It’s important to note that there are many children who have friends and still have significant social challenges. Having effective social skills is about skillfully interacting with all people with perception, sensitivity and empathy.
#2: Is your child often teased, bullied or excluded?
There’s usually a reason insensitive children are picking on your child instead of on some other child. This may not be true in every case, but in over 25 years of experience as a teacher, I’ve found that it’s the rule rather than the exception.
It’s true that the bully needs help, but that’s out of your hands. And even if you could do something about it, that only solves the problem of this particular bully. There will be others who may hurt your child unless your child learns how to avoid irking others. You want to help your child improve his life even if the problem isn’t his fault.
And, if your child doesn’t handle social situations well, his inappropriate reactions to the teasing or fighting will compound his predicament and increase his isolation. It is possible to learn effective ways to react to insults and teasing.
Another example of this would be an older boy who can’t seem to get chavrusos. It may be that no one else wants to learn with him for the same reasons we’ve been discussing here. It may also be that he gets into unpleasant disagreements with his chavrusos, which the other boys are trying to avoid.
#3: Does your child participate in whatever activity his classmates are doing during recess or breaks?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a child choosing to just “chill” during his recess time. However, most children enjoy participating with their peers during recess.
He might say, “I’m not into sports.” He may not be into sports, but he should be “into” playing with other children, whatever the activity happens to be. Perhaps he’s not good at sports, but why isn’t he good enough to at least participate? It’s possible that it’s due to the fact that he never plays. Which came first: the child’s inability to play or the lack of desire to play?
Engaging in sports is socially demanding. One needs to be good at cooperating with one’s teammates, negotiating disagreements with the other team or with his own teammates, giving in at times, losing gracefully, balancing being caring toward others with trying to win the game, and many other skills. If a child knows that these skills are difficult for him, he’s not going to want to play. As a teacher, I encourage my students to play during recess even if they don’t enjoy sports, since it’s a terrific “learning laboratory” for children to develop these crucial skills.
#4: Does your child take others’ words too literally?
Often, children with social challenges are unable to discern the true meaning of others’ comments. They hear what was said, rather than what was meant. This causes them to miss inferences, expressions and exaggerations (think Amelia Bedelia) and can lead to misunderstandings, frustrating conversations, an inability to understand and appreciate humor, and looking foolish in front of their peers.
#5: Does your child often interrupt your words or your actions abruptly?
I once asked a parent if her child often interrupted her. She looked at me and said, “He never lets anyone finish what they’re saying!” This is a common symptom of someone who has social challenges, due to an underdeveloped sensitivity regarding the need to be aware of what others are doing and not to disturb their plans. This child may also look surprised when he’s reprimanded because he is unaware of what he did wrong.
#6: Is your child very quiet?
There can be many reasons for a child sparing his words. Often, we chalk it up to his having a “quiet” personality. However, there may be other reasons. One possibility, is that he doesn’t have the skills necessary to speak clear, cogent sentences. It’s easier for him to be quiet and say only a couple of words at a time than to struggle to fully express his thoughts and feelings.
This is easy to miss since this child is generally a “dream” at home and in school. If he doesn’t talk, he doesn’t cause trouble. Often, parents will have their child evaluated by a speech therapist who declares that he’s fine. However, speech therapists test for basic language skills, which he definitely has. We’re discussing high-level communication skills, which is not something a typical speech therapist tests for or works on, unless he has special training in this area.
In a similar vein, we may have a child who talks but it’s difficult for others to understand his train of thought. He might skip essential words, speak disjointedly, or just ramble on and on without knowing when to stop.
This child may not have any deficit in his social cognition but he does need to work on the social skill called “communication skills.” If this issue is not addressed, these children sometimes develop anger issues, since they’re frustrated with their inability to share their thoughts and feelings adequately and feel like they are not being “heard.”
#7: Is your child aggressive with other children, always wanting his way, or does he bully others?
There are many possible reasons that a child is aggressive or a bully. One common issue is that although he has certain social skills — which is why he’s able to say just what hurts the most and why he’s able to enlist followers — he’s lacking in empathy, sensitivity and open-mindedness.
#8: Does your child ask questions or make comments that are off-topic?
This may be a sign that he’s living in his own world without fully realizing how to regulate his behavior to be in consonance with those around him.
Occasionally, I’ll have a student who often raises his hand in middle of class to ask about something that has nothing to do with the lesson at hand. The other boys will look at each other and start giggling. They definitely shouldn’t laugh at anyone, but you can imagine how this boy may be suffering socially as a result of engaging in this type of behavior.
A related phenomenon is when a child begins to talk without explaining the context of his comments, leaving you confused since you have no idea what he’s talking about. He may assume that you will know what he’s talking about; after all, he knows what he’s talking about, so why wouldn’t you?
#9: Is your child’s eye contact weak?
Typically, when we engage others in conversation, we establish and maintain eye contact. This tells the other person that we’re interested in the exchange. It also allows us to notice the other person’s nonverbal clues. Many children with social challenges don’t engage in sufficient eye contact because they don’t intuitively comprehend the purpose of eye contact. Some actually find locking eyes with another person extremely uncomfortable. This can be a real hindrance to developing relationships, as it’s difficult for anyone to connect if the other person does not look at them.
Additionally, many children find it difficult to interpret visual clues. This is something that’s very difficult to discern without a full evaluation, but it will have a huge impact on how the child understands the world around him. This problem is only compounded with the passage of time, as these children are not continually developing this communication skill while their peers are.
#10: Is your child a little “too honest” at times, leading him to insult people? Is he surprised when you tell him that what he said was inappropriate?
Some children are unaware of what’s acceptable in society and what isn’t. I once told one of my own original stories to my class. The ending wasn’t your typical “happily ever after” ending. Afterward, when many boys were crowding around my desk, one boy came over to me and blurted out loudly, “That was such a dumb ending!” The other boys were so shocked at what he’d said that they were completely silent for a few seconds. I knew I had a great relationship with this boy and that he definitely wouldn’t want to insult me. I asked him, “Do you think that was a nice thing to say?” He gave me a puzzled look, took notice of all the boys staring at him, and said, “What’s wrong with what I said?” He was sincere — he actually didn’t comprehend what was wrong with sharing his viewpoint about my story. Fortunately, I understood this immediately because I knew that this boy had some social challenges.
#11: Is your child less self-conscious than his peers about his physical appearance?
Typical children are naturally concerned about how they appear to others; admittedly, sometimes too much so. Some socially challenged children are unaware of how others will judge them if their dress or hygiene habits are lacking. They also may not care about what others think of them, since they don’t fully understand the consequences of having others judge them negatively.
#12: Does your child become extremely frustrated when he doesn’t get his way or when others disagree with him?
A child who has a hard time understanding other people’s perspectives will naturally become indignant when others don’t recognize that his opinion is the only sensible one. This is the source of the friction that inevitably occurs when this child plays games with others.
In a similar vein, when he asks for something and his request is not granted, he may keep asking again and again, since he can’t wrap his brain around the fact that you think differently than he does.
#13: Does your child invade others’ personal space?
Does he get too close to others or touch them in uncomfortable ways? This may be a sign that he does not intuitively understand the unwritten rules of society. Just telling him that he shouldn’t do these things usually won’t do the trick. He needs to fully understand what “unwritten rules” are, and why it’s important to follow them. Chances are that such a child is also unaware of other important unwritten social rules.
#14: Does your child exhibit exaggerated reactions, that don’t seem typical for a child his age, to events?
For example, if he’s in third grade or above and he cries in school when he’s merely disappointed, this is considered unusual behavior. Perhaps he laughs extremely loudly at a small joke. This unusual behavior will eventually affect his social standing in the class.
When a student cries inappropriately, a teacher will likely choose one of two ways to react. The “be tough” teacher will chastise the student for acting like a baby. The child may feel misunderstood and believe that the teacher is mocking him. Alternatively, the teacher can show real empathy for this child, who’s obviously in such great pain that he’s crying in public. However, this will merely reinforce this atypical behavior, which should not be our goal. Therefore, issues like this need remediation outside of the classroom.
#15: Does your child get insulted from playful teasing?
If your child is coming home telling you that other children are annoying him, don’t always take it at face value. Children often engage in playful teasing. This is done by nice boys and girls who mean no harm. In fact, it can be a good sign since playful teasing is something friends do with each other and can even deepen relationships. If you believe that this is the case with your child, you should show empathy and not just brush it off by saying, “Don’t take it so seriously.” He may not have mastered the ability to distinguish between playful teasing and hurtful teasing. This is a high-level skill, necessitating being able to figure out what the other person’s intention is. Most children have this intuitively; some have to be trained.
#16: Is your child often dishonest, seemingly without remorse?
Many children are dishonest at times, out of fear, greed, or a desire to impress others. They’re usually anxious about getting caught, and if they are caught, they feel embarrassed, worried about the consequences, and full of regret. Some children, however, don’t seem to feel bad about what they did and they don’t seem to be concerned about the consequences. This can be due to the fact that they don’t fully comprehend how betrayed and angry others feel when they are lied to, and how their relationship of trust was broken.
#17: Is your child lacking motivation to excel in his studies despite his intelligent mind?
Most children have a desire to excel and earn top grades, since they will always, both consciously and subconsciously, compare themselves to others. This “competition” is a driving force for students, perhaps more with boys than with girls. However, for a child who struggles with “perspective-taking,” which is the skill of understanding and being aware of what other people are thinking, this will not be as strong a force. They don’t see the “why” as clearly as others, and therefore, they’ll be less willing to put in the extra effort to achieve excellence.
#18: Is your child anxious, depressed, angry, moody, or distant?
Often, there are what we call secondary symptoms, which are behaviors that aren’t inherently social deficits but are a byproduct of having social deficits. It’s true that these behaviors may have other sources, but it’s important to investigate whether the child’s social experiences are the cause, since they often are.
It’s not only the bullying and the isolation that can lead to despair. It’s the fact that the child’s living in a confusing and frustrating world, where he doesn’t understand everyone else’s social rules. Sometimes these children actually think the rest of the world is crazy, since other people don’t think and act as they do. One factor that often motivates children to work with a social skills professional is that they’ll be able to understand why other people behave the way they do so much better. So many of these children are just plain confused about the social world they live in.
Most people are more familiar with psychological and emotional issues than with social cognition issues, and this often presents a problem. Immediately upon seeing that the child has developed emotional issues, they think he needs therapy. He might. But talk therapy may just be a band-aid on his real issue of social deficiency. The therapy may help him deal with his depression, but wouldn’t it be wise to remedy the source of his depression?
This list of red flags is far from exhaustive. However, there’s enough information to begin thinking more concretely about your child’s social competency. If your child has one or more of these symptoms, it would be a good idea to discuss your child’s issues with someone experienced in evaluating and remediating social cognition and social skills challenges.
The truth is, everyone has social challenges. We all have some bad habits and we’ve all experienced more than one embarrassing social mistake in our lives. That’s what being human is all about, and that’s why there’s something called self-improvement. However, these children were born with a more significant social challenge, and helping them can make a huge difference in their lives.
This article originally appeared in Binah Magazine.Rabbi Chaim Trainer of Los Angeles is the author of Shalom Secrets: How to Live in Peace with Family and Friends; a Children’s Guide, and he works with individuals and groups to improve their social cognition and social skills. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone: 323-549-0279.