Is your child:
As a parent, do you worry about your child’s social connections? Does it seem like he or she did just fine in kindergarten but in upper grades things are different?
Perhaps social connections seem more immature than what you’ve noticed with other children. Maybe as your child reaches middle school there is not the depth to friendship, and everyone feels like an acquaintance. Your child may say “I have so many friends” or he or she may say “I don’t want any” but either way you worry about those connections.
Social motivation is different than social savvy. Social motivation means that the child cares about making friends, but this motivation does not necessarily indicate social success.
Social Development: During typical social development, we want to see children coming up with what to say to others easily, knowing how to start a conversation, how to keep an interaction going, and how to politely end the exchange.
They also have to understand social rules; they have to know when to be a leader and when to follow. Children should know what actions are “too much,” too physical, or taking it too far. Some children appear to follow others all the time, to stand on the sidelines and never engage in a leadership role, while others are bossy and too controlling.
By grade school, we should see children understanding social relationships, knowing what to say to a peer, and recognizing deeper interests and areas to connect.
A child should not simply talk about one interest or get stuck on a topic without being able to shift to something else. A bright pre-teen or teen should not appear puzzled by the question “What do you do for fun?” Children should be able to respond to open ended questions with a variety of responses.
Lacking social motivation: Children who are lacking motivation tend to stand out. You may see them isolating themselves with a book at every recess or droning on endlessly on a topic like Star Wars or law enforcement, seeming unaware that their ‘listening audience’ lost interest long ago.
Social motivation is a critical first step in social development. Kids have to care in order to even begin to make friends. To be successful socially, they have to learn how to identify who good friends could be, find friends with common interests, and skillfully join a group of children who are playing together.
One important diagnostic consideration when a child appears to lack social motivation is whether this is a personality trait or a sign of a disability. Clinically, social motivation is an important factor to consider in child development, but it does not rule in or out a disorder that is social in nature.
Social motivation includes:
Shyness, introversion, and ‘slow to warm’:
Shy children are nervous when meeting new people but then will approach peers once they are more familiar and comfortable. They are still able to make friends and develop deep connections with them over time.
Introverted children can be socially motivated but they may prefer time on their own and may be less inclined to introduce themselves to people. Introverted children may not ‘get their energy’ from others. They may need time to ‘recharge’ after being around people for long time, which would only be a concern if they were unable to make friends or connect with other children.
A ‘slow to warm’ child is one who may have a difficult time separating from parents initially but will eventually become quite social as an adult spends more time with them.
These personality types do not indicate poor social motivation and are probably not cause for concern.
Continuum of social motivation
If your child is not necessarily a social butterfly or a bubbly personality, you may have no reason to worry. Consider the continuum below to see if your child appears to be on track.
Toddlers and preschool children should smile at and approach each other, take interest in similar toys, stories or jokes. For example, a class of two-year old’s may all love to make the same funny face after one peer initiated it. Preschoolers learn each other’s names and start to seek each other out in play.
In kindergarten, children who are socially motivated will share information about themselves and answer questions. They also play together and begin to take turns and to develop as leaders, social allies, or followers.
By mid-grade school, children should want to have playdates or get-togethers with friends. They should not just be satisfied with seeing their close friends only at school.
Children in late elementary and middle school start to align with peers before parents in some situations. For example, at the swim team picnic, children run around together, leaving the parents behind. They plan and initiate playdates sleepovers and activities and just rope parents in for permission. Children start to want to spend a great deal of time with peers.
When there are concerns on this continuum, you may notice that your child is spending a lot of time alone. He or she may avoid social interactions, run around on the playground without really playing with anyone, or seem almost unaware that other children are around.
Why Friends? If a child is not socially motivated, then teaching social skills includes the added step of explaining to the child why having friends might be important.
Perhaps a child has been rejected one too many times, perhaps he sees others through a negative lens or he likes things to go his own way. It may feel like involving others would place undue burden. Tasks he finds fun now would be less fun with another participant who might not do things just the same way.
Socially motivated but still lacking friends? Other times, your child may really want friends and understand very well that friends are important but still have significant trouble making social connections. The desire to make friends does not necessarily the skills required to develop close relationships with peers. Children may want friends very much but find it hard to make lasting connections.
Social Savvy in Kids: Some children need to learn to take turns, communicate in a way that is not bossy, listen to others’ comments or ideas, elaborate on conversation topics, and read others’ body language.
Other children need to learn what to say, how to express interests and how to know what others like. Children should begin to make friends and have close friends when they can master some of these skills.
Social motivation in the context of autism: Some children with autism are highly socially motivated. As social demands increase and social communication becomes more sophisticated, these children can become lost.
They may not know what to say or how to approach others. They may perceive others as being negative or excluding them socially, when this is not the case.
Socially motivated children with autism have challenges with social communication. It is important to remember from a clinical or diagnostic perspective that being socially motivated does not rule out the diagnosis of autism. Many children with autism want friends.
On the other hand, children with autism may have significant challenges with social motivation. This challenge may initiate from a history of social rejection and negative experiences.
Children with autism tend to struggle with social perspective taking (understanding others’ thoughts feelings and behavior), may not see why it is important to consider other’s views and opinions, and may be completely happy buried in a nonfiction book about rare bird species.
Whether or not a disability is present, social motivation is an important skill for social success. Kids need support if they are really unsure about joining groups, avoid social interactions, play alone, or are bossy and pushy.
Parents and caregivers are wise to keep get a professional involved if their children are constantly getting into conflicts on the playground or are always playing alone. It may be that your child occasionally shows some social motivation but is always ‘stepping in mud’, that is, having a social interaction that doesn’t go well.
Children can be taught these critical social skills; the best way to help is to start intervention both at home and at school as soon as possible. Resources for appropriate therapies are provided in the ‘Where To Go For Help’ section below.
For the child who wants to engage:
Strategies at home: Practice with your child. Set up playdates or activities with a clear structure to relieve some of the unknown.
A playdate at the zoo, the pool or at an arts and crafts center provides an expected structure, while going to a friend’s house leaves lots of unstructured time and questions like “What should we do next?” Unstructured activities are more likely to lead to argument or disagreement.
If your child struggles socially, you want to first build confidence in social scenarios that you can practice or talk about before. At the zoo, kids can take turns deciding what animals to see next. These opportunities to take turns and compromise and conversation topics are obvious.
Practice conversation for the playdate depending on the plan. If it is the zoo, talk about favorite animals, comment on what animals are doing and learn about animals’ behaviors and habitats.
If the playdate is for arts and crafts, practice positive comments like, “I love the color of your tree” or “cool clay house.” Practice by asking questions like, “what are you going to draw next?”
Asking questions can be a great thing for a socially motivated child to learn. When a long pause occurs, ask a question of the other person and listen to the answer.
With older children, help plan the text message, call or email to set up a playdate or activity, giving him or her more ownership of the plans.
Finally, be sure you are choosing a good peer to spend time with. Choose someone your child likes, who has similar interests and is kind and friendly. Not all socially motivated children can read their peers well, and some may choose peers who would not make great friends.
Children who struggle socially need a lot of practice in these social settings. It is relatively easy to get the socially motivated child to agree to an activity or playdate or party. Take advantage of this and plan something weekly, more often in the summer. Practicing social skills is the way to improve them.
Additionally, consider a social skills group that is clinician led with similarly aged children who have similarly developed intellectual abilities. These groups are another form of practice that can be very helpful for the motivated child who is failing socially.
For the child who does not want to engage:
This process is a bit harder because some children reject social opportunities. It will be important to try to understand if your child’s perspective comes from a history of rejection, a lack of skills, or very restricted interests. Try to understand why he or she does not see the need to engage in socially.
Consider the following strategies when you choose social activities to plan:
Be strategic in planning the social activities. Plan things that are highly motivating because of the activity.
Pick a peer who you know your child is comfortable being around. Go to the science museum to learn about outer space, join a Minecraft camp for a week in the summer, go to the lake if your child loves to swim.
Make the activity motivating, and help your child build success in relationships with other children who also like the same things. Build skills the way we discussed above, but be selective in the type of activities. Initially, stay away from busy picnics or birthday parties that might make your child feel miserable.
Thinking about the reasons why: Poor social skills (whether motivated or not) can be a sign of a disability such as Autism. If you suspect your child may have a disability, it is worthwhile to get an evaluation and to pursue associated therapies.
Autism: Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders may or may not be socially motivated and are likely to be socially awkward. When evaluated through tasks on the ADOS-2, a child may fail to let another person get in a word.
He may give a lecture about air conditioners or tell you every detail about his fish. When you say in turn “Oh, I have some pets,” this statement is met with no response, a change of subject or an awkward “(long pause) Oh.”
Nothing to Say. Another child may look at the examiner and smile pleasantly but have no response to “What do you like to do during the summer?” or “What’s your favorite____?” The open-ended question can be daunting, and some motivated children just don’t know how to respond.
Reading Nonverbal Cues. Children with Autism tend to have challenges with conversation because taking others’ perspectives is challenging . It is also hard to read other people when you are not paying attention to their nonverbal cues.
Often, children with ASD don’t make well-coordinated eye contact, so they aren’t looking to see how the conversation partner is responding nonverbally. They don’t know when the partner is expecting a response or when he or she is moving on to something else .
All About Facts. Also, children with ASD tend to have restricted interests. They really enjoy talking about a certain subject, which may quickly bore another child who doesn’t share that interest. They struggle with open-ended tasks and ideas, which makes sharing facts a lot easier than reciprocal conversation.
If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.
Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.
These professionals may recommend the following tests for this symptom:
 Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
 Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.
 Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.
 Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation.
 Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.
 UCLA PEERS Clinic https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers
 Giler, Janet Z. (2000). Socially ADDept: A manual for parents of children with ADHD and / or learning disabilities.
 Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s.
 Baker, Jed. (2006) Social skills picture book for high school and beyond. https://www.amazon.com/Social-Skills-Picture-School-Beyond/dp/1932565353/
 Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.
 Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.
 McConnell, Nancy & LoGuidice (1998). That’s Life! Social language.
Children’s books on social skills:
Brown, Laurie Krasny & Brown, Marc (2001). How to be a friend: A guide to making friends and keeping them (Dino life guides for families).
Cook, Julia (2012). Making Friends is an art!: A children’s book on making friends (Happy to be, you and me).
Cooper, Scott (2005). Speak up and get along!: Learn the mighty might, thought chop, and more tools to make friends, stop teasing, and feel good about yourself.
Meiners, Cheri. (2003). Understand and care.
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