July 02, 2015

Q: My 6 1/2 year old son is an only child and has been involved in playgroups since he was 6 months old. In the last year, I've noticed that he is having more difficulty getting along with friends. While he behaves well and gets along with adults, he gets upset easily when playing with other children. He sometimes is bossy and overly dramatic. Is this normal? What can I do to help him get along with others?

A: Here are some tips for helping a child learn to get along better with others.

Increase positive behaviors he already exhibits  If a child increases behaviors such as sharing and treating others nicely, by default there will be fewer instances of undesired ones.  So, “catch” your child being good and really praise it.  Parents should also make a chart on which a sticker is placed each time he engages in a desired behavior; after a certain number of stickers are earned he gets a reward, such as watching television (but he is not allowed to watch any television, for example, until he gets that right number of stickers).  Behaviors that are rewarded or praised tend to increase.

Figure out what new skills you want him to use, and practice them  When he doesn’t get his way, perhaps you want him to tell himself, “It’s o.k; maybe I’ll get to do it later”. Learning to do this is a skill like anything else: the more he practices, the better he should get at it.  So first practice it by pretending you are in one of these situations, and have him practice saying this out loud.  Then, when he gets good at it, go over it with him before the actual situation is about to arise, and have him practice it at that moment.  Then, each time the situation actually does arise, have him stop and use this new skill.

Avoid situations, when possible, that lead to bad behavior.  If a child’s behavior is worse when he is tired, schedule play dates at times when he is well-rested.  If he can play well for one hour but then becomes a cross between Attila the Hun and Donald Trump (“You’re fired; get out of the sandbox”), make his play dates 45 minutes.  If there are certain toys he doesn’t share well, have those toys away when others come over.

Make sure that you and others model the behaviors that you want your child to exhibit.  You can’t expect a kid to do better than the adults in his life, and you’re fooling yourself if you think “Do as I say, not as I do” will have any effect at all. Be sure you and other important people in his life act the way that you want him to act - with kindness and respect – and that you handle anger well. And try to actually out-loud use the same coping phrases that you want him to use, so he can see and hear you model the exact skills that you want him to use.

Increase empathy Many children have difficulty seeing the point of view of others and understanding how things affect others.  When parents are watching television with their child, or when they read about something in the newspaper or hear about something that happens in real life, parents can ask the child questions like “Why do you think that person did that?” or “How did that person feel?”, in order to help kids get into the habit of thinking about and caring about the thoughts and feelings of others.  When a child shows kindness or caring or empathy, praise him for this.

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Answered by Dr. Wayne Fleisig


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