Karen L. Schiltz Ph.D.

Beyond the Label

The Power of Play

Why is my child not popular? 20 characteristics of popular children

Posted Aug 01, 2012

“All my daughter wants to do is to play the Sims games. She stays in her bedroom for hours and I have to remind her to come downstairs for dinner. It used to be o.k. when Dana was younger. She is now 13 years old and something is not quite right.”

 “I can’t keep track of my son’s social calendar. I think of myself as ‘The Driver.’ Our phone is ringing off the hook. It seems as if Jake knows everyone in class and every student wants to be his friend.”

 Two different kids. Two different situations.  These scenarios may be familiar to you.  As parents, we want our child to be liked by others. We want them to be invited to birthday parties and sleepovers. You may have wondered why some children are popular and others are not.

 “Popular” children tend to be socially competent. What does the term, “socially competent” mean? I discussed this subject with speech-language therapist, Robin Burkholz, M.A. CCC-SLP from Westlake Village, California. She said, “The ability to have a conversation is actually a complex process involving multiple exchanges where both the speaker and listener need to use their verbal abilities as well as their social thinking skills. Social thinking is a set of skills we use to interpret non-verbal forms of communication such as facial expressions, perspective taking, and interpretation of another person’s mood. The ability to tune into what others are thinking, quickly formulate a thought, retrieve and organize the language needed to effectively communicate that thought, and use it appropriately in a conversation requires a specific set of skills.”

 People perceive popular children as friendly, sensitive, helpful, thoughtful, caring, and fun to be around. Children who are socially competent and popular exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Initiate conversations easily
  • Maintain and easily engage in conversation in a give-and-take manner
  • Stay focused on the listener
  • Exhibit good planning and memory skills when juggling multiple pieces of information
  • Offer personal information and disclose their feelings when appropriate
  • Understand what others think and feel
  • Correctly interpret visual signals such as understanding and responding appropriately to different gestures and facial expressions
  • Know how to ask for what he/she wants
  • Maintain eye contact with the listener
  • Value other peers’ opinions
  • Are aware of his/her tone and volume of voice
  • Manage their emotions such as anger
  • Maintain good sportsmanship etiquette
  • Enter a group asking permission to join and are also mindful of what the group is talking about at that time
  • Are cognizant of physical boundaries such as not crowding others’ space
  • Self-correct a mistake in his/her behavior when conversing with others
  • Resolve conflict equitably and with empathy for the other peer’s perspective
  • Are sought out by others for companionship
  • Are aware of how her/his behavior impacts others and carefully considers all consequences before making a decision
  • Are well-liked by peers and may be considered a best friend by most of their peers

 “Accepted” children are well liked by the majority of their peers but may not be the most popular. These children share many of the same characteristics as the popular child. Accepted children are helpful, courteous, and easily engage with others. They also express caring and admiration and are comfortable disclosing their feelings in maintaining friendships.

 For the majority of children, good social skills come easily. However, other children who exhibit difficulties socially may become neglected or even rejected amongst their peers. One can think of these children as “unaccepted.” These children typically exhibit low levels of social competence.

 Making and keeping friends is important for all children. Having positive peer relations promotes social competence and this, in turn, supports healthy emotional and social development. Healthy social skills are reinforced when a child interacts positively with their peers and buffers against stress while also enhancing self-esteem. We now know that friendships affect a child’s sense of belonging, self-worth, and overall happiness.

 Trust your gut if you think something is a little off with your child. Consult with your child’s pediatrician if you are concerned. The pediatrician will likely refer you to a psychologist or speech-language therapist to assess social thinking skills. Robin Burkholz explains, “Developing friendships and maintaining these relationships is critical for a child’s development and a necessary life skill. Most children with social challenges want friends, but they lack the skills to make and keep them. We evaluate pragmatics and social thinking skills using standardized tests and observational rating scales. Then we use this information to determine their areas of weakness in verbal and non-verbal forms of communication, as well as their perspective taking and interpretation of facial expressions and moods. Finally, a treatment plan can be designed to train specific skills for using language and social thinking to build friendships, as well as strategies for social problem solving so a child can successfully navigate conflicts and repair miscommunications.”

 The bottom line is to remember that intervention is critical and will enhance your child’s overall feeling of well being and health!

 Best Always,


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