Do you remember the carefree days of your youth? Running outside to meet up with your friends at the park and keeping an eye on the sun and street lights to know when it was time to head home for dinner and family time. Those were the days!
Present day socialization practices for our children are on a whole other level! Not only do they engage in very different in-person interactions amid the ongoing pandemic, some also engage in social media connections with peers that are far from the days of our youth, free of accessible technology anytime right at our fingertips.
As we all continue to navigate through these unprecedented times, it goes without saying that our children’s social and emotional development has been affected for some more so than others. From our youngest ninjas to our teen ninjas, all of our children have experienced some degree of shift in their ability to make healthy social connections. This all begs the question, how can we best support our children’s social development?
Before we can dive into socially supportive strategies, we must first recognize and appreciate where are children are currently at in the challenges they face with their social growth and development. Let’s break it down:
3-4 Years Old Social Challenges: Neurotypical challenges this age group faces include communicating through physical means vs. verbal, expressing difficulty in taking turns and being very self-focused. Why?
- At this age and stage of development, young friends have a limited vocabulary making it very challenging to express themselves using their words. Thus, physical expression when emotional flooding; surge of emotions occurs is very common.
- When friends of this age experience an emotional response to stimulus that is overwhelming to their system, a shift from the “Upstairs Brain,” responsible for higher thinking to the “Downstairs Brain,” flight, fight or freeze occurs.
5-6 Years Old Social Challenges: Neurotypical challenges often faced by this age group include seeking constant attention, becoming easily distracted by what others are doing especially when involving friends, speaking with zero filter and poor sportsmanship.
- During the ages of 5-6 years old, children are positively increasing their knowledge of new words and expressing them more often vs. using physical means of expression. With that said, due to an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex, impulsivity; speaking before thinking, acting before thinking is quite common.
- As children of this age group begin to take baby steps in exploring more social connections with friends vs. parents/caregivers, interest in what friends are up to can challenge this group as they strive to relate, form more bonds with those outside of their primary circle.
7-9 Years Old Social Challenges: Neurotypical challenges this age group faces include getting frustrated when they witness things that aren’t fair like a peer cheating during play to win as well as disliking having the spotlight on them.
- As children of this age group continue to grow and develop through the years of 7-9, they are faced with frustration and begin to engage in the time-honored tradition of tattletaling. While this often comes as a frustration to parents, it is actually a sure sign of their brain reaching a critical stage in its development; the ability to call out right from wrong, reasoning and critical thinking skills beginning to come online.
- Further, feelings of fear of failure, especially in front of adults, contributes to apprehension of being put under the spotlight in a variety of settings. Emotional regulation in these uncomfortable situations can be challenging as their minds can still easily shift when overwhelmed from the “Upstairs Brain” into the “Downstairs Brain.”
10-14 Years Old Social Challenges: Neurotypical challenges often faced by this age group include caring more deeply about what peers think and feel about them, demonstrating riskier behaviors and displaying immature behaviors amongst friends.
- As children of this age group enter into their final years of physical, intellectual and emotional growth, culminating in full maturation of their brain in their early twenties, lack of ability to make good decisions due to peer pressure as well significant changes in their brain’s final stages of growth and development all contribute to an emotional roller coaster ride for teens.
- There is the notion amongst teens discussed by Jean Piaget of the “Imaginary Audience,” the belief held by adolescence that they are being constantly watched and scrutinized for their appearance, actions, etc. This coupled with an overwhelming desire to please their peers can contribute to complications in experiencing healthy social interactions
Bearing your child’s age and stage of social development in mind is critical to being able to effectively support, nurture and guide them in their social goals. Reflecting upon each of the age groups discussed above, consider these socially supportive goals.
3-4 Years Old Social Goals:
A.) Create time and intentionally supportive space that gives your child the opportunity to learn alongside and interact freely with their friends.
B.) Standby! Allow your child to explore their world through play with friends!
C.) Call Out the GOOD! Take every opportunity to call out your child’s positive choices, nurturing good behavior decisions when interacting with peers.
D.) Provide choice of pre-approved options that your child and their friend may exercise their decision-making abilities, flexible thinking together.
E.) Finally, offer praise and rewards when your child and their friend exhibit control when big feelings arise!
5-6 Years Old Social Goals:
A.) For this age group, just as with our 3-4 years old friends, create time and intentionally supportive space for your child and their peers to explore play together; especially play that encourages good teamwork, working together.
B.) Help oversee and nurture opportunities of healthy competition where friends can actively practice winning and losing with grace. As with anything, practice makes habit!
C.) Encourage your child and their friends to take pride in playing together well, with kindness, flexible thinking and abundance of caring!
7-9 Years Old Social Goals:
A.) Creating opportunities for your child and their friends to build up and boost their positive feelings of self and of others is must!
B.) Offering encouragement and positive reinforcement will go a long way in helping your child build their overall confidence in engaging with peers.
C.) Supporting regulation of emotions and offering assistance between your child and their peers as needed while they are displaying critical thinking skills will also go a long way to help improve and strengthen your child’s ability to move from the “Downstairs Brain” back into the “Upstairs Brain” when strong emotional interactions and responses arise.
10-14 Years Old Social Goals:
A.) First and foremost, create safe, soft, caring, trusted space with your teen, allowing them to express their emotions if interactions with peers are at a heightened emotional state. You are still your teens safe place! Be the parent they need you to be, not reacting out of emotion to what may be poor choices on their part. But hold space for them, responding in love, light and truth as needed to help them navigate through this critical stage of their growth and development.
B.) Create opportunities for your child and their peers to come together in a safe space to enjoy time with one another as often as you can!
C.) Praise, Praise, Praise their positive choices!
D.) And never stop the flow of unconditional love you have for your teen, supporting them every step of the way as they make their final progression into adulthood.
If you are noticing your child is currently struggling in making positive social connections and/or thriving in their relationships with friends, please consider speaking with one of our Pediatric Ninja Specialists. We know that navigating the social universe today is not easy. That is why our team is here to help and support you every step of the way! Together we will help all our children thrive physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially.
About the Author
Meg Klettke is the proud owner alongside her husband, Alex of Family Strong Sussex, a SKILLZ Lifetime Gold studio in Southeastern Wisconsin. With a background in traditional and alternative therapeutics, Meg is an active advocate for today’s youth. Her passion for supporting and nurturing the whole child resonates through all she does as a Proud Ninja Mom of two boys with special needs, Certified Pediatric Ninja Specialist and Content Creator for SKILLZ Worldwide.