I was talking to a group of children recently about games they play at school lunch times. This particular group discussed an elaborately thought out game, with a varying general membership, and with two to three core members who facilitated the group plan. There was a sense of real delight in their ideas, plans, and in each other. When I questioned how disagreements would be managed, such as when one of them wanted to leave the group, or wanted to promote their idea over others, it was interesting to hear the flexibility in their thinking. One child said, “We sometimes need a break from the game and that’s okay”.
So, how do our children learn this nuanced way of being in a social group? There is a lot written about how to help your child engage socially from a skill perspective. So, rather than dwell too much on this, let’s focus on what we offer our children around socialisation. There are particular things we do as parents that help, or hinder our child from having successful social experiences, and in developing their social self.
A little about the social self
Social play allows children to practice social parts of themselves, take risks both in a social and physical way, and to engage in new interests or friendships. Rather than get too theoretically, at a practical level, developing the social self involves engaging in the activity of social play. Social play has many components such as being able to:
- Enter the play space – This involves approaching others as they play, quietly observing games, or waiting for a natural break in play to occur.
- Practice social language skills – We do this by using smiling, eye contact and tone of voice to engage someone, tuning in to the same conversation topic, listening to our talking partner, or asking them their name.
- Manage our physical self – This involves being aware of personal space, keeping our bodies still/in the play space, or navigating our body to participate in a shared activity.
- Manage emotional needs – We need to be able to manage our big feelings to engage freely in shared delight, playful behaviours, and curiosity.
- Engage in thinking – We do this by holding information and recalling things to help play progress, adding ideas from other contexts to make new meaning and to learn, or simply being able to remember a friend’s name.
More interestingly, it is our child’s experiences with us that influences how they learn about themselves, and themselves in relationship with others. It is from us that they learn how to join, share, deal with disappointment, be vulnerable, manage frustration, and communicate with kindness. They then practice these lessons as they engage in social play with others. This is never more important that when our child faces challenges, and cannot use these skills in a seamless way. For instance, when they are anxious, if there is trauma, or if they have particular medical or developmental concerns. In these circumstances, our child may need our help to engage and find meaning, socially. Here, our role might be to:
- Engage their curiosity – “Sarah looks like she wants to be in your game. If you don’t need another doctor, what could she be instead?”
- Comment and guide our child toward a natural entry – “Shall we go pick up some blocks to help build the tower?”
- Help our child make connections with others by using their play – “I wonder if James could help unload all the bricks from your truck”.
- Help them to repair relationships – “You’ve both had a hard time. I think you are both feeling sorry about it. What could we do to play again?”
Thinking about ourselves
But, what if we are really anxious about their social development.
I remember watching my child playing with friends. My child was struggling with a particular social task that other children were able to do easily. I felt myself become really anxious. I felt that I needed to get my child to do this like everyone else. Fortunately, in that moment, another parent looked at my child and very kindly said: “I like the way you are doing that your way”. Those kind words helped ease my own inner fears, and helped me see my child’s developing social self in a new way.
Sometimes, we find it challenging to provide a nuanced social experience for our children because of our own struggles socially and emotionally. For some of us, it may be hard to see our child struggle, and we move in too quickly to help. For other’s, it may be challenging to be available or confident when our child needs us to make sense of things socially and emotionally. It is really important in these moments to stop, and to reflect on what may be driving our fears. It takes courage: to know that our child may not be ready for a particular developmental task; to allow our child to try out a task, experience a little failure, and be able to seek us out for help; and, to offer ourselves as listeners to their social upset, without rushing in with soultions.
Our children are learning about their social selves through social play experiences. Importantly, it is also our parental capacity to think about their particular skills and struggles, and to provide just the right amount of social and emotional support, that helps our children see new parts of themselves. Sometimes, this means we have to reflect on our fears, to enable them to develop socially.
We also need to remember that when there are significant emotional, mental health or developmental difficulties, this can be hard. Here further assessment and intervention with a parent-child therapist may help.