Hannah is 13 years old. She is very popular. Making and keeping a friend was never a problem for her. Her cell phone is constantly buzzing and father complains that she is never home. Weekends are packed with play dates, with many invitations to events. Being invited to birthday parties and bar mitzvahs are a weekly occurrence. It seems as if Hannah knows everyone. Hannah’s mother, Ava, is glad that her daughter has many friends.
Dana is not as fortunate as Hannah. She is also 13 years old and does not have any friends. Dana is confused and does not understand why other girls in her class avoid her. She used to be the “leader” in previous grades because many of the girls were interested in anime. In fact, parties used to center around anime and manga. Her previous girl friends are now into Justin Bieber and singing pop songs. Everyone has drifted away and Dana is very lonely. She eats by herself at lunch and plays alone at recess time. She tried to join a group of girls but is frequently confused. It seems as if the girls just stare at her. Dana is sad and anxious. Her classmates do not ask her over for play dates and sleepovers. She rarely gets invited to birthday parties now. Dana wants friends. Her mother, Martha, wonders why this is happening because her daughter is so smart and sensitive. She gets A’s for the most part at school. It seems as if Dana is on another “wavelength” and doesn’t get the big picture socially.
These are two very different girls. Hannah has many friends and Dana does not. What is going on here?
As I mentioned in my blog last August, popular children such as Hannah exhibit the social, cognitive, and emotional skills that are needed to engage with their peers competently. These are the children who are typically liked by others and are sought out for friendship. These children are also fun to be around and will inhibit negative behaviors such as interrupting others when they are talking and are equally mindful of how their actions impact others. Hannah can understand the emotions of others and can perceive social cues when in conflict. These children understand what is relevant or not relevant to respond to in a social situation. They have a wide variety of social skills to use in different contexts.
A popular child can also be a bully. A bully is defined as a child who through aggression, whether it is physical and verbal, intentionally inflicts harm toward another student. These children may not only be socially competent but will also obtain approval for inappropriate behaviors. For example, a bully may tease a child who cannot read facial expressions. A bully might indirectly harm a peer by spreading rumors, with associating with others who support their position regardless of the consequence. Some children may even find themselves as both a bully and a victim.
For the majority of children, good social skills come easily. However, other children who exhibit difficulties socially may become rejected or even neglected amongst their peers. Rejected children may exhibit behaviors that disturb other children. They may be bossy, domineering, and not share during a play date. Peers may complain that they do not follow the rules and are verbally and physically aggressive with them. Children may also be rejected if they are restless (hyperactive), moody, and immature. Teachers and parents may find that they become frustrated and at a loss how to manage situations when tempers fly.
Neglected children are typically shy, reserved, and not comfortable around their peers. They may hang back when in a group and cling to a teacher or another adult when in unstructured situations such as recess and lunch. Their peers will ignore these children even though they may exhibit high levels of social competence. Typically, these children also feel lonely, isolated, and sad. They deeply want friends.
The consequences of poor social skills can have long-term implications. Making and keeping friends buffers against stress and protects against medical problems such as depression and anxiety. Identifying the warning signs of children in social distress is important for all caregivers. With that in mind, you may observe the following characteristics in a child with social difficulties:
Others may bully your child as a result of weak social skills, problems with language, negative temperament, or even problems with attention and concentration. Remember that bullying can be direct (teasing) or relational (spreading rumors). Relational aggression is harmful and cannot be tolerated. What should you look for if your child is being bullied?
At the same time, your child may be the bully. This can take the form of face-to-face bullying or, as mentioned above, the bullying can be quite indirect. For example, cyberbullying is very harmful because the victim has no place to hide. In addition, cyberbullying involves a large audience, with the bully not aware of the reactions from others. This type of bullying can take many forms from sending mean messages to posting personal and sensitive information about the victim. Some teenagers have also told me that the bully pretends to be someone else in order to make them look bad. As mentioned previously, bullies often exhibit high levels of social competence. Specifically, they have high status amongst their peers and will typically have lots of friends. Bullies often tend to perceive themselves in a positive light, with an inflated sense of self. The following signs may be observable to you if your child is a bully:
As I mentioned in my August blog, making and keeping friends is critical for all children. Having positive peer relations promotes social competence and this, in turn, supports healthy emotional and social development. Children who exhibit weak social skills will be isolated from their peers. Peers and even parents will reject or neglect the child who has problems connecting with others. Continued isolation further exacerbates troubles socially because healthy same-age peers will not interact with them. It is clear that early intervention matters.
Trust your gut if you think something is a little off with your child. Your child may exhibit problems with attention and concentration and might be fairly impulsive. Other children may also have real difficulties connecting with their peers indicative of autistic spectrum disorders and troubles with language. Still other children may have marked problems managing their moods, with subsequent explosive anger. In addition, some of these behaviors will be fairly typical of the normally developing child because of their age. Consult with your child’s pediatrician if you are concerned. Remember to get a second opinion if you do not agree with the consultation. Helping children with social problems at the earliest opportunity will increase self-esteem and will have a life-long impact on how they relate to others.
Karen L. Schiltz, Ph.D.
Psychologist (CA PSY 9508)
Private Neuropsychology Practice of Karen Schiltz Ph.D. and Associates
Associate Clinical Professor (Voluntary)
Medical Psychology Assessment Center
Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior
Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences
David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA