The Power of Socialization

The Power of Socialization article by Dr. Sam Goldstein

A parent I was consulting with recently expressed worry about her 7-year-old’s friendships. She asked: "He seems to enjoy school for the most part and talks about some of the kids in his class, but I don’t think that he has any close friends the way I did when I was his age. Should I be concerned that he is lonely or not developing proper social skills? What can I do?"

Perhaps our closest worry after school achievement is our children’s socialization. We are social beings. We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years living in groups, relying on and supporting each other, and sharing in the raising of our children. As such, we sometimes talk about “the social brain” in comparison to the “logical or emotional brain.” At its extreme, children with social learning difficulties may struggle to the point of significant impairment leading to specialized evaluation and diagnoses of socially related conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, or Social Pragmatic Communication Disorder. But, from this mother’s further description, it did not appear that seriously deficient social skills were the issue. It also did not appear that her child was lonely—at least he was not reporting it. So, what's normal? What's not?

Mayo Clinic Psychologist Dr. Craig Sawchuck writes "We are social animals by nature, so we tend to function better when we're in a community and being around others." Researchers find a direct correlation between time spent alone and depression. More of the first one leads to more of the second. Further, it's suggested that socializing not only reduces feelings of loneliness, but also it helps sharpen memory and cognitive skills, increases your sense of happiness and well-being, and may even help you live longer. Socialization often begins with a smile, an important phenomenon I wrote about last month (The Extraordinary Power of a Smile) . In-person socialization is best, but connecting via technology is a good second option. Over the next ten years we will better appreciate the extent that years of limited socialization in an effort to combat COVID 19 Pandemic has and may have in the future, adversely impacting the social and mental health development of our children. If you want to learn more about the research generated thus far about children and COVID 19 take an hour and watch my recent webinar on this topic (click here) .

There is a wide range of normal differences in socialization. Researchers find that it isn't the number of friends a child has, or for that matter, even the number of play dates they have in a week. What matters more is when you want to interact socially, are there peers available and can you do it successfully without an altercation, loss of interest or some other challenge? This is equally true in adulthood. Some children grow up in communities where there is access to many children for socialization. Others find themselves in communities where there are few other children of their age. One is not necessarily better than the other. In other words, there is no "magic" number of friends that your child should have.

I urge parents to not compare themselves and their childhood to their children—especially at this moment in time as the COVID-19 Pandemic has made it more difficult for children to socialize, even children with normal social development. But, to this mother—or any caregiver—generally concerned about their child’s social well-being, here are five things you can do.

  1. Seek out accurate information. I have a saying: wrong information is worse than no information. Bob Brooks and I have authored a book specifically for parents to help their children develop social skills.
  2. Communicate with your child’s classroom teacher. Ask about friendships at school, behavior on the playground, working with other children during group activities, etc. Is the child engaged interacting with everyone else or are they isolated? The latter is a problem that should be addressed.
  3. Help your child identify at least one good friend from school or in their neighborhood. Then, make an effort to have that child invited over for a movie night, sleepover or some other activity. That will give you as a parent the opportunity to observe how your child interacts with a peer.
  4. Consider whether your child has been invited to parties or other activities with classmates. This is often a telling statistic. If your child has been invited to parties, this suggests that they are accepted, even at a young age when "everyone is invited."
  5. Listen to and observe your child. I think the time to worry is when your child reports being lonely, sad or unhappy, when they report that no one likes them or they have no friends, or when you observe them in group situations isolating themselves and being unable or unwilling to socialize. Kids have two kinds of basic social problems. They are either too aggressive, boisterous and over the top or they are isolated and withdrawn. The first one leads to rejection by peers. The second one is neglect by peers.

If the information above or your observations raise greater concern, the next step would be to speak with the school psychologist or counselor at your child’s school and/or ask your pediatrician for a referral to a pediatric psychologist. But if your child's teacher isn’t concerned and you've observed your child interact with his/her peers successfully, then you can rest assured that your kid is doing just fine. ◆

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