As many places across the country return to “normal” and the dust begins to settle, we are starting to see the effects of a two year disruption in routines and relationships. Some people, due to a variety of factors, have been hit harder than others. If your child seems to have lost some social ground over the past couple of years, here are a few tips to help them dust themselves off and get back in the game.
1. Accept that fact that things are different
You may remember an outgoing, bubbly child from two years ago but now see a child who is uncomfortable and unsure in social settings and wish you could get the “old” version of your child back. Don’t waste emotional energy on those types of thoughts. We are in unprecedented times and we are all figuring it out as we go. Your child is too. They need you here in the moment, not wondering what “could have been.”
2. The world may have slowed down, but your child’s development didn’t
Two years is a HUGE portion of their current life span and their development carried on, even if everything else didn’t. So your pre-tween from two years ago is now a tween and has all the emotional and hormonal turmoil to go along with it. Who’s to say what struggles they would be facing today, with or without a pandemic? Some of the social difficulties your child is facing may be completely normal.
3. Focus first on equilibrium
Your child has had a disruption no living generation has experienced. You may have to adjust expectations a bit. If your child is struggling with social interactions, you may have to pare down their calendar temporarily. Create breathing room. They may not be ready to jump back into all the things your family was involved with before. And that is okay. Allow your child respite and space to venture out into the world again at a pace that is comfortable to them. Try to uncover their baseline comfort level and start there. But definitely don’t stop there.
4. Use language that inquires and explores
Talk openly with your child about what he or she needs to feel safe. I think it is easy for us to underestimate the importance of our children’s safety needs. They have been growing and developing at a time when even the grown-ups were unsure about how things would turn out. Take the time to explore this issue of safety by asking things such as, “When are you the most calm?” or “What situations give you the feeling that you want to leave?” “Is there anything that would help you want to stay?”
5. Don’t enable fears and avoidance
We have all been through a lot and some of us do not have the bandwidth to gently nudge our children to do something that is uncomfortable. But it’s important that we find the support we need do the hard work. If we let our children completely avoid what is stressful to them, we are non-verbally communicating that what they are avoiding is worthy of avoidance.
6. Provide your child with tools
This is not push-them-out-of-the-nest-and-hope-they-will-fly sort of scenario. They need your help to have tools to face uncomfortable social situations. Teach them how to self soothe in healthy ways such as positive self talk (“I can do this!”) and calm breathing (in for 6 beats, out for 8 beats). Be aware of self-soothing that is less than helpful such as picking scabs and chewing collars. Equip them with a broad vocabulary of feelings words to help them articulate what they are feeling and what they need from you.
7. Give them encouragement
Kids need your encouragement to try what is hard. You can say, “I know you can do this! But if for some reason it doesn’t work out, I’m always here. You can try again!” Share a hope that it won’t always be like this. Let them know that you are their biggest cheerleader and their home base.
8. Provide opportunities for success
Try to encourage socialization with others where they may already feel secure such as in your home, a favorite park or a walking trail. Start with things that require less stretching and gradually move to activities that require more. Give them scripts to use when approaching friends (“Do you want to throw a Frisbee with me?”) and grown-ups when in public with you by their side (“I’d like the chicken nuggets please.”).
9. Get professional help if necessary
If after all these efforts, your child is still struggling with their social skills and making real connections to peers, reach out for help. Your child’s school may have a school counselor with a social skills group. Or you may find a counseling practice that has individual or group therapy for social skills development. Child-friendly workbooks that focus on making and keeping friends may also be helpful.