Social Thinking is (Almost) a Superpower
Most of us know when to comfort a friend or laugh at their bad joke, or when to speak in a conversation or listen. We have all sorts of different social interactions all day, every day — and somehow, we just seem to know what to do in in each of them. (Well, most of them.)
Social thinking — perceiving and analyzing the verbal and non-verbal cues in our interactions with others — underlies our ability to get along. And, it’s nothing short of a superpower.
Social thinking includes understanding social conventions for a boggling array of settings, and the ability to perceive and respond to the needs of individuals based on past experiences, belief systems, and personality. It's a lot to process.
Most people are able to sort it out and respond appropriately in only a few milliseconds. It requires a degree of mental flexibility that is really quite amazing, yet we do it constantly and usually without a conscious thought.
A Pattern of Inappropriate Behavior
Children who struggle with social thinking can seem weird, oblivious, belligerent, or badly behaved. They find it difficult to make and keep friends, follow instructions, or respect authority. It may be because they fall on the autism spectrum, or have another diagnosable disorder that affects social thinking.
Or, they may just need help with the who, what, when, where and how of interacting with other people.
It’s important to support kids with deficits in social thinking, as they can quickly find themselves isolated and alone, and vilified for their inappropriate behavior. It can have a profound effect on their self esteem, their ability to connect with others, being able to achieve their wants and needs — and even their academic performance.
Warning signs for children with social thinking deficits may include:
- Interacts in an awkward, weird, or odd manner
- Says things that are inappropriate for the time and place
- Displays emotions that are inappropriate for the situation
- Plays less maturely than others of the same age
- Has trouble forming and maintaining friendships
- Overprotective of relationships, has trouble sharing friends
- Feels betrayed and becomes angry with friends who are not giving them full attention
- Seems emotionally immature, has younger, more immature friends
- Engages in relational aggression, spreads rumors or teases others frequently
- Uses antagonistic behavior such as poking or hitting to get attention
- Is overly dramatic, animated and sensational
- Always tries to top others, one-upmanship
- Poor winner and loser
All children — and even adults — behave inappropriately at times. It is normal. We do not always have the experience or the knowledge to do or say the right thing. But if a pattern of inappropriate behavior emerges, it may be time to intervene.
Very Sociable Social Activities
There are many ways to help children, both with and without social thinking problems, to improve their people skills.
Read books together. As you read, talk about how the characters are feeling. Help young children identify behaviors and feelings: “Look, this puppy is crying, he must be very sad.” Talk about how the other characters respond, and ask children how they would respond in the same situation. Ask older children to predict what will happen next. Scale the level of discussion to the age and needs of the child.
Watch movies or television together with the sound off. Discuss and identify the non verbal cues such as facial expressions and actions. Try to guess what is happening and predict what will happen next, or create your own script for a scene. This is a good activity to help older children formulate their own “scripts” for real-life social situations.
Have a family game night. Board games and multi-layer card games require turn-taking, and moments of disappointment and pleasure depending on luck in addition to winning or losing. There are opportunities to compliment other players, as well as offer helpful suggestions or advice. It is a good time to practice being a gracious winner or loser, too.
Plan a play date. Ask your child to help plan games and activities that his or her guest would enjoy, requiring them to take a different perspective and consider the needs of another. Children can also assist with planning for other guests, including grandparents and family. While planning, be sure to talk about why we want to make others feel comfortable and welcome, and how it makes them feel.
Sign up for activities that require participation. Clubs, teams and other after school activities offer kids with social thinking difficulties the opportunity to interact from a secure base of shared interest. Try to find an activity where the child already possesses some proficiency, so they enter with a degree of confidence, and can build self esteem. Many children who struggle with social thinking avoid social situations, and can easily become isolated, so a scheduled activity ensures practice.
Volunteer with community groups. Charities, faith groups, and other organizations have activities and events that require volunteers to work together for a good cause. Participating in a beach clean up, handing water to runners, or sorting items for a charity market are all positive group activities that are non-competitive and full of good will.
Be a model. Model appropriate behavior and explain why you are doing so. “When Anne started crying, I sat down with her and listened because people often feel better when they talk about what is making them sad.” Do the same especially when complimenting someone, as positive interactions are the building blocks of rapport. “I said congratulations to Paul because he aced his math exam. It makes him feel good to know others are proud of him too.”
Make thinking about others a habit with children who need help with social thinking. News of a friend’s pet dying, or a cousin’s award are great times to talk about how other people feel, and what might be an appropriate response to when the child sees them next. Pointing out the difference in context is important, too, as the same situation in one place can require a different response than in another, such as home versus school.
Does your child need help navigating social situations? The Blurton Family Development Center offers Superflex Social Thinking workshops starting in February.