Abba, Why Don’t I Have Friends

Abba, Why Don’t I Have Friends?

Guidance and tips for parents and teachers of children and students who struggle with social codes and face challenges in their social interactions

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Alexander Moskowitz

Psychotherapist, Social Worker, Director of the "Havinenu" Center

Chaim is standing in the hallway of his preschool classroom. Suddenly, a boy approaches, gives him a big smile and slaps him on the back with a heart “Hello!” Chaim is stunned. He doesn’t know how to respond.

In a fraction of a second, Chaim’s brain starts working feverishly. He tries to understand the situation. “Who is this boy? Why did he hit me? Does he want to be my friend? Or maybe he wants to hurt me?” Chaim remembers similar situations in the past, and tries to recall how he reacted and what the outcome was.

Only then can Chaim decide how to respond. Should he smile back? Walk away? Try to avoid the boy? Get angry? Any response that Chaim has after a short time will affect what happens between Chaim and the other boys in the class going forward.

Many children struggle with similar difficulties. They have a hard time understanding social situations, analyzing the intentions of others and choosing the right response. Forging social connections is a difficult and complex task.

The older children get, the more complex their social interactions become. Children need to learn how to deal with conflicts, to forge meaningful connections and to maintain friendships. For children with social difficulties, these tasks can be very difficult.

These children might return home and ask, “Abba, why don’t I have friends?” This question stems from a deep desire to have social connections, and a wish to belong and to develop social skills that will enable them to thrive in social settings.

In recent years, awareness of emotional and developmental difficulties has increased drastically, both among teachers and educators, and among parents. If in the past, children were classified as lazy, or disinterested, today we understand that for the most part, there is some type of obstacle that is blocking them, and they are not merely lazy. As such, solutions can be found to help them grow and thrive, with siyatta diShmaya.

At the same time, some educators ask themselves: Haven’t we gone too far? A child is a bit tactless, and he’s already classified as having a communications disorder. And a child who is a bit antsy is already being diagnosed with ADHD…

You may ask: So what’s the problem? On the contrary, there is more awareness, and more help available for struggling children! Indeed, the awareness and the help that children get is wonderful, and it helps save many children. But when a child is labeled as having communications difficulties or ADHD, there are many educators, and sometimes even parents, who will step aside, with respect, so that they don’t overburden the child and cause him detriment, chalilah. They will refrain from being mechanech this labeled child, and leave it to the teacher who has decades of experience. But it is specifically the contributions that parents and educators can make that have a decisive influence on the child, sometimes no less than the professional therapies he gets. Therefore, concurrent to referring him for therapy, parents and teachers need to figure out how to help each child advance based on his difficulties. We will provide some tips and advice on how to help children with social struggles in the home and school setting.

Development Ladder

It’s important to know that social difficulties, or even autism, might be a very difficult obstacle to surmount. But we must also remember that with the right help and proper support, the child can be helped and can thrive. In fact, communications development can be compared to a ladder that children are supposed to climb over the years, from birth, developing more skills the higher they go. For example, a 3-year-old child is expected to feel comfortable asking a neighbor for ice cream and it’s safe to assume that you’ll respond with a smile. At the same time, if an 8-year-old child would ask for ice cream, you might find it awkward. That’s because the 8-year-old, by that point in time, should be high enough on the ladder to understand that it’s not appropriate to ask a neighbor for ice cream.

Although social skills are largely developed during childhood, they can be improved at any age. The earlier a child is referred for therapy, and the earlier these things are worked on, the easier it is for the child to develop these skills and not lag behind his peers.

Regretfully, some children struggle, and they get stuck on the lower rungs of the ladder. Our mission as parents and educators is to help these children reach the age-appropriate levels and to provide them with the support they need to climb higher. The child will be able to do this successfully only if all those around him give him a hand. Parental intervention is crucial, together with the staff at the school, and sometimes together with or overseen by a professional. Of course, it depends at which stage the child is stuck, and based on that we will provide the necessary assistance.

Chaim, whom we met at the beginning of this article when he was 9 years old, struggles to understand vague messages in social settings, known as “pragmatic difficulties.” Pragmatics is the ability to use language in a way that is compatible with the circumstances, and to understand metaphors and messages between the lines, meaning the informal list or rules that determine how to conduct a conversation based on who the other person is, the subject, the circumstances and the context.

The Stages on the Developmental Ladder

Following is more detail on the developmental ladder, and the stages when children advance and develop social and communications skills through childhood and adolescence:

Age 3-7

The child is unable to understand that another person might interpret the same situation differently than he does. He might say things like “Savta doesn’t like me. She got angry at me because I wanted to talk to her during davening,” or “Pinchas broke my toy on purpose!” The child might struggle to interpret whether behavior is intentional or not. For example, he can say, “She doesn’t want to play with me.” Relationships at this age are based only on toys and how available they are. “Yaakov is my best friend. He lives near me and he has two tricycles. He lets me use one.” It is necessary for adults to initiate and maintain these primitive friendships.

Age 7-9

At these ages, the child begins to become aware of the emotions and viewpoints of others. He will understand, for example, that his father gets angry when he jumps on the trampoline with shoes. As a result, the child begins to form real friendships, based on areas of mutual interest: “I’m Gadi’s friend because he collects Rebbe cards.” The child begins to understand the unique needs and talents of his friends, and he can say, “Shlomo can explain things well. I’ll ask him to help me make up the Gemara from when I was absent.”

Age 9-12

At this point, the child begins to understand how others see his actions, and can process, for example, that “Baruch laughed at me when I asked a silly question.” As a result, real cooperation, back and forth and compromises begin to develop: “I don’t want to play cards, I want to play hide-and-seek.” “Fine, I’ll play hide-and-seek with you, but next time you’ll have to play cards with me.” The child begins to develop social self-awareness: “I’m not as good as the other kids at tag.” He understands the concept of loyalty: “I’ll always be Baruch’s friend no matter what happens.”

Age 12-15

At the age of adolescence, friendships undergo a significant process of deepening and development. Social ties become more personal, emotions are shared, and there is mutual support. For example: “I got very upset today when I didn’t do well on the test, but I felt better after I spoke to Shimon.” Teens begin to share their personal problems with others. For example, “I told Shimon that I was really tense during the test, and I don’t think I did well.” Minor fights or disagreements won’t necessarily signify the end of a friendship, and there’s reason to assume that the connection will continue. For example, “Leah was very dismissive of me today when I told her about the program I wanted to suggest to the class. Tomorrow, when we meet on the way to school, I’m going to let her know that she really offended me.”

Age 15 and up

From age 15 to adulthood, social relationships become more stable and more beneficial for both sides. For example: “I can always rely on Shimon. He’s always there for me when I need him.” Teens understand the need for a variety of social connections, and the possessiveness toward friends diminishes. For example, “It’s fine that Zorach wants to be Shmuel’s friend also; I don’t need to be his only friend.” It’s accepted for people to have many friendships on different levels of closeness and intensity. For example, “I have a few close friends, and I have friends who I am not as close with, but I enjoy talking to.”

Importance of Social Skills

Although it is very important to seek professional help and guidance on how to best support a child with social/communications difficulties, what often happens is that the minute the child is referred to an expert, or is waiting for therapy, the parents and teachers enter a sort of holding pattern, waiting for therapy to begin. This is a big mistake, because early intervention is vital for children with communications difficulties. Parents and teachers who are with the child most of the day are in a unique position to help the child advance. While the therapy sessions are important, it’s no less important for parents and teachers to actively think about how to advance the child’s social skills. By working together and supporting the child in his daily interactions, the child can advance a lot faster and can maximize his potential, b’ezras Hashem.

Social codes and social skills are like an inner guide for each person on how to successfully conduct himself in social settings. They include an array of understandings and behaviors, such as how to be conversational, the ability to understand social cues and the ability to pick up on nonverbal messages. It’s also important to be able to express emotions in a way that suits the situation, and to act in accordance with various rules and norms. Other important skills include the ability to cope with winning and losing, creative thinking to solve problems, staying calm when things get frustrating, and knowing how to listen to others. Also included are understanding what others feel and think, the ability to be coordinated in movements, not to get too close to the person you are speaking to, being able to conduct a conversation in a group, being able to stand up for your opinions in a suitable way, and more.

Developing Social Communications at Home

In order to help a child climb the ladder, it’s important to create opportunities to practice basic skills instead of focusing on specific tasks. For example, if your child tends to be self-absorbed and impulsive while playing with friends, it’s important to teach him to take turns. While enforcing the rules of playing by turn can help in a certain sense, it’s better to help the child develop a more basic ability: to take the needs of others into consideration. This expansive category includes skills such as sharing, and it can be practiced in day-to-day situations, such as giving up one’s seat at supper or giving a different brother a chance to ride the bike first. By identifying and utilizing these opportunities, we can help a child learn to balance out his needs with those of others, by explaining to him calmly and in a soothing tone that right now we are learning to take turns.

Opportunities for Practice

Creating opportunities for social encounters is vital for the child’s social development. This can be done by encouraging social interactions within the family, such as family games, or eating supper together. In addition, you can promote social meetings at school by advancing group activities and team projects, and encouraging children to interact with others their age at recess or during lunchtime.

It’s important to provide children with varied situations and social experiences. For example, children can learn how to navigate social situations in which they may encounter conflict or disagreement with their peers. For instance, if a child struggles to share toys with others, parents or teachers can guide him through the situation and help him understand how to trade and share with others.

Board Games and Cards

Board games and card games are a wonderful tool for developing social skills in children. These activities require countless social skills, and provide an important opportunity to learn and strengthen these skills.

In order to fully participate in a board game, each player must:

  • Conduct negotiations
  • Play at his turn
  • Follow rules
  • Know how to lose gracefully
  • Know how to win graciously
  • Share
  • Be patient
  • Plan

Children who have difficulty with social skills might encounter many challenges while playing a board game. You may be surprised to discover how many things such a child will struggle with while learning these simple rules of the game.

You need to be patient. Do not allow him to change the rules or making up his own rules during the game. (“This round doesn’t count,” “I’m allowed to go twice.”) This pattern of breaking rules will never be accepted by his peers and will be a source of conflict when he plays with other children. You can tell this to him. At the same time, board games are also a good opportunity for a child to learn negotiating skills. The rules of the game can be changed upon mutual agreement (for example, “The game table is very small, so if the dice fall from the table the player can roll them again.”) But each change has to be decided on before the game begins.

A struggling child may have a hard time with this, and will try to change the rules as the game progresses. If this happens, tell him that the game is going to stop if he doesn’t stick to the agreed-upon rules.

Board games provide parents with a wonderful opportunity to practice social skills. Praise the child when he makes a good move, or displays positive social skills. Allow him to lose a game every so often; don’t give in to the temptation to allow him to win all the time. Remember, losing gracefully is an important social skill.

Give Feedback

During the day, there are many opportunities to teach children to be considerate. It might require parents and educators to pay extra attention, but it is very important in advancing the child.

For example, some children struggle to respect others’ personal space and may come too close to them or disturb them when they are speaking.

As the child’s understanding develops and his social awareness grows, it’s important not only to teach specific tasks such as “stand a meter away from the person you are facing,” but also to teach broader social interactions by reading nuances. For example, you can say, “Notice when you are standing too close to me or to a friend; it makes them feel uncomfortable, so it’s better to stand further away.” This is a way of giving the child feedback about his behavior.

The only way to acquire these skills is when these children experience communication with peers of their age, or with adults, and get feedback on how they did. Obviously, it should be delivered in a positive way, not critically. These children can start noticing when other people distance themselves from them when they get too close, and the parent can make up to signal them to move a bit away with a prearranged signal.

Self-Awareness and Introspection

In order for children to learn from these experiences, it’s important to encourage self-awareness and self-analysis. Conversation with a child about his difficulties is very important.

Deep self-awareness is called reflection, and it is an important process that includes introspection and thinking about experiences of the past in order to draw conclusions for the future. Without reflection, an experience is just a passing episode that may not be preserved in his memory and will not provide a learning opportunity. In order to process our experiences, we have to study them, describe them, express our feelings and thoughts about them, and learn from them to deal better with similar situations in the future.

Reflective conversations and understanding the practical experiences can help these children put their experiences into words, express their emotions, conceptualize their learning about themselves and about society and identify the points where it was hard for them and what they learned that could help them in the future. Through reflection, children can develop deeper understanding about their social skills, and use this knowledge to advance on the communication ladder.

This can be done by involving children in conversations about their social experiences. For example, one can ask how they felt during the situation, what they learned and what they can do differently the next time. Parents or teachers can also share their own experiences and viewpoints, and provide guidance on how to deal with various social situations. Afterward, the child can reflect by describing his experience and emotions. He can identify the values and skills that were acquired from the experience.

Role Playing

Role playing is an important tool in developing social skills. Using role playing games, children can practice various social scenarios and learn how to communicate effectively with others. This approach enables children to experience situations in real life in a safe and controlled environment, in which they can try out different social roles.

For example, children can role play a conversation between a teacher and student. This enables the child to practice how to communicate effectively with an authority figure, and how to ask questions or express worries with dignity. Similarly, children can practice how to ask a friend for help. This scenario will teach the child how to express his needs and to listen better when a friend asks for help.

Role playing can also help children develop empathy and understanding of others. For example, they can play games with a scenario where they need to console a friend who is agitated. This scenario teaches a child to be compassionate and understanding, and how to provide emotional support to others.

Mediation and Guidance

It’s important to understand the difficulty of the child who is struggling to grasp the codes and the appropriate behavior expected of him. In many cases, the teacher gives instructions or expects the children to understand from the way he is speaking how they should behave, but these children don’t understand implicit messages. Therefore, it’s essential that teachers and parents understand that the child is struggling to get the message, and isn’t intentionally being chutzpadik or different. It’s important to go down to the child’s level and simply explain things more clearly: Now everyone is doing x, and now it’s suitable to do y, and so on.

Likewise, the mediator has to not only provide an explanation for the immediate situation that the child is facing, he also has to help the child apply the lessons for future situations. The mediator needs to take into account the circumstances and the child’s characteristics. He initiates conversation with the child, while paying special attention to the stimulus that he has chosen, with examples and explanations.

The mediator needs to then show the child, through examples, what he needs to do the next time he faces the same type of challenge, whether it’s difficulty waiting on line, understanding from a friend’s facial expression that he is sad and doesn’t want to play now, and the like.

Discussion and Conversation

Parents can play a significant role in developing social skills in struggling children. Through open and honest conversation, parents can help their children identify their social difficulties and discern where they struggle.

Struggling children often have a hard time analyzing complex social situations and identifying their primary difficulties. Parents can help children focus on the main problem each time, while ignoring the background noise.

After discerning the problem, parents can help raise solutions. It’s important to encourage the child to suggest as many solutions as possible, with the support and guidance of the parents.

Example: Father: “Yochanan, why are you alone in your room on such a nice day? All the children in the neighborhood are at the park across the street. Why don’t you join them?”

Yochanan: “They don’t want to play with me. They are all angry at me – for no reason.”

Father: “Wow, it sounds like everyone is angry at you. Why do you think they are angry?”

Yochanan: “They’re just jealous because we have a new house.”

Father: “I understand. Maybe there could be something that they didn’t like about your behavior, and that’s why they said they don’t want to play. Yochanan, try to remember, was there something unusual that happened recently?”

Yochanan: “Yes. They said that I always need to be first.”

Father: “I see. Would you want to be the friend of a boy who always has to be first? It gives people the feeling that you don’t think about others when you always insist on going first, even though I know that you are very considerate, but you also like going first.”

Yochanan: “Maybe that’s why they don’t want to play with me.”

Father: “So what do you suggest we do?”

Yochanan: “Maybe I’ll try to go down and play with them and I won’t ask to be first, and we’ll see how it goes.”

Father: “Great idea! Let’s try it. I’m sure that if they see that you’re being flexible, they’ll be happy to play with you, because kids like other kids who are mevater.”

Yochanan: “Thanks, Abba, I’ll try.”

Father: “Good luck, Yochanan! I’m sure you can do it!”

In Conclusion

These tips are intended for children with social and communications difficulties, in general. Children who are very low-functioning socially need guidance from someone experienced in the communications field. That person can craft a plan to advance the child on the ladder.

To summarize: Children who have social and communications difficulties can improve and grow. It depends on us, parents and educators. We need to identify the child’s difficulties (because every child is a world unto himself), such as: What is he struggling with? Is he having a hard time making friends? Does he have trouble understanding nuance and reading between the lines? And so forth. Then, we need to work on these points with the child, to practice and help him develop these skills. When we help the child consistently, with patience, he will advance and thrive, with siyatta diShmaya!

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