How do I help my kid who is struggling?

How do I help my kid who is struggling?

What do I do for my neurodivergent child who is struggling socially?

Yep…it happens. As a parent, one of the hardest moments has been watching my neurodivergent child struggle socially. I have been there, and often find myself back there just when I thought things were getting easier. Just the other day on the soccer field my young child completely misinterpreted a social cue, and instead of “taking a knee” for an injured player, thought the phrase was literal and busted up laughing at the idea of taking someone’s knee! 

Luckily, the injury was minor and the player had a snack and some water and was back on the field moments later.  

While I understood why my child may have had this misinterpretation, not all of the other parents did. Because the kids were young, many of them needed to learn what that phrase means and what they are expected to do when a fellow player is injured. The coach took the opportunity to explain what the phrase means and what the players should do. 

What is the difference between masking and social development? 

Here was what I thought about after that game. Not all of the parents know my child is neurodivergent. My child spends a lot of time masking. This is where a person with autism will suppress their behaviors so that they fit in. It can be exhausting and it isn’t always sustainable. What I saw was my child responding to a phrase literally, finding it funny, and not understanding what to do. He lapsed…his mask came off as he stopped looking around for context clues as to how to fit in. What the parents on the sidelines saw was my child was misbehaving, or making a joke for attention, while there was an injured player on the field. For neurodivergent children who mask, developing their social skills can be extremely challenging. 

Developing social skills assumes that there is an understanding of what the social context is and that, with practice, the response matches the context…and makes sense. It becomes a skill that doesn’t have to be thought through to put the matching behavior into action. So when the other kids on the soccer field saw the injured player, and took a knee, it made sense to pause the game while the player walked off the field and took a break. This made sense, and next time, most of the players will know what to do.  My child will have to work really hard to suppress the literal interpretation of the phrase and look for context clues and decide whether to monitor or suppress their natural response. 

What do I do to help my neurodivergent child develop social skills? 

Here lies my concern as a parent. My child is not always able to interpret social cues in the same manner that a neurotypical child may. Teaching discreet social cues is helpful, however I can’t teach them every…..single….possible….social context that they may come across and guide them through all the outcomes. My neurodivergent child doesn’t alway have the ability to think flexibly, interpret context, or understand that someone may change their feelings or preferences. There is that balance somewhere in there that I want to be mindful of. I want my neurodivergent child to think and behave without the constant judgment of those around them, while also being mindful of what the context of the situation is, including how others may be feeling. Although those two things are often at odds with each other, there are many supports that we as parents and care providers can do to help our children build on their social skills and help alleviate masking pressures. 

Coaching a neurodivergent child with social cues supports their social development. There are many things that parents and care providers can do. Developing strong social skills is an important life skill and is crucial for social development. 

There are many strategies to support our neurodivergent children develop socially.  There is no “one size fits all” approach, and depending on their developmental needs, some strategies may work better than others. Because each child is different, and constantly growing, you may want to see what works for now, and come back to these strategies again at another phase of development. There are many ways to support our neurodivergent children navigate the complex social world while still feeling good about who they are. 

  • Visual Aids: Utilize visual aids such as social stories, picture schedules, games or emotion cards to help them understand different social situations and emotions.
  • Direct Teaching: Explicitly teach social cues and behaviors by breaking them down into concrete steps. Role-playing scenarios can also be helpful for practicing social skills in a safe environment.
  • Modeling: Demonstrate appropriate social behaviors and cues in real-life situations. You can use toys as models to role-play what could happen. 
  • Clear Communication: Use clear and concise language when giving instructions or providing feedback, while keeping it kind. Promote them to talk through what happened what they might do differently if they got to re-do that part of the day. 
  • Consistency: Establish consistent routines and expectations to provide a sense of predictability for the child. Consistency helps them feel more comfortable and confident in social situations.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Praise the child for demonstrating appropriate social behaviors and cues. Positive reinforcement encourages repetition of desired behaviors.
  • Patience and Understanding: Be patient and understanding of the child's unique challenges and strengths. Celebrate their progress and provide support when they encounter difficulties. Don’t be afraid to revisit a social situation and talk through it after the fact, or help them anticipate a situation. 

By employing these strategies and creating a supportive environment, you can help neurodivergent children navigate social cues more effectively and build meaningful connections with others.

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