Tuesday, March 12th, 2013
Having grown up with a sibling with disabilities, I’ve seen firsthand what it’s like for a child to struggle making friends. My younger brother, Jimmy, suffered from a seizure disorder and learning disabilities, displayed violent-aggressive behavior, and had trouble regulating his emotions– all stemming from a benign brain tumor he was born with. It was clear from his earliest years that, despite my parents’ greatest efforts to give him a normal life, he was going to have challenges most kids don’t face – and creating friendships was one of them. We watched as Jimmy grew into a little boy who was kind, clever, and humorous (to say the very least), but his outbursts, impulsivity, and delayed brain development made it difficult for him to interact with kids his age.
Recently, I attended an event for The Meeting House, an afterschool program in New York City for children who lack “normal” social skills – a resource I wish we could have had during Jimmy’s growing up years. Through activities such as sports, music, dance, and homework help, the program helps school-age kids build their social skills and self-esteem in a fun environment where they can interact with others like themselves. Two fantastic experts, Fadi Haddad, M.D., the director of Child Psychiatric Emergency Services at Bellevue Hospital here in New York City and Sima Gerber, Ph.D., a professor of speech-language pathology at Queens College, spoke about developing social skills to a packed room that included parents of children with developmental delays and social difficulties, as well as educators and psychologists. Here are some points that jumped out at me, and that I hope can be helpful to parents who are in similar situations as mine were:
Know what’s normal. Be aware of the skills your child should be developing for his age group and look for any abnormalities (see red flags below). That said, if he’s behind or not interacting with others the way you’d expect him to, that doesn’t necessarily mean he has social difficulties. Dr. Haddad mentioned that it’s not unusual for over-anxious parents to bring kids to his office who are perfectly fine socially, just a little quirky.
Look for red flags. If your child is oppositional, angry/aggressive, awkward (to the point that it impacts his social interactions), or if he doesn’t show emotion, it’s worth getting a professional opinion.
Early intervention is key. The sooner the issue is identified and treated, the better chance your child has of reaching his next developmental milestones. Also, since it can affect your child’s overall happiness if he has trouble making friends, you’ll want to work on the problem right away.
There’s not always a pill. A child may have a hard time interacting with others because he is shy, or there could be a bigger issue going on, such as autism, abuse, ADHD, learning disabilities, or bullying. In those cases, once the primary cause is identified and treated, there’s a greater chance things will improve. Dr. Haddad stressed that it’s important for parents to understand there isn’t always medication that can help, and that other options like therapy, can be more effective than a pill.
Good social skills start at home. It’s just as important for children to interact well with adults as it is for them to interact with other children. Kids who have positive relationships with their parents tend to do better socially – since unhealthy parent-child relationships can create distorted judgments with friendships.
Find the right resources. While parents can make sure they’re providing their kids with positive child-adult interactions at home, it’s much more difficult for them to encourage healthy child-to-child interactions during class or playtime. Programs such as The Meeting House are so helpful because they give these kids the chance to bond with others like themselves, and ultimately build their social skills.
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