My Child is Having Social Difficulties – Help!

Social-emotional development is believed to be foundational to other areas of development such as language, cognition and general life skills. Being socially and emotionally competent allows kids to explore and grow within their social environments, both at home and in the community.

Though they are not uncommon, weaknesses in this area can negatively affect a child and lead to lifelong problems, so it is important they are identified and addressed early.

Social difficulties can pop up for many reasons, including:

  • Environmental constraints e.g. lack of opportunity for interaction might have stunted the ability to learn social skills (this might be a young person that has spent lots of time in hospital or travelling the world).
  • Psychological disorders e.g. children with the potential to develop social competence but lack competence in specific situations that are uncomfortable to them (a common example is anxiety).
  • Learning disabilities or neurodevelopmental disorders e.g. might display minimal understanding of emotional expression, poor ability to learn social skills due to brain-based conditions (these include Autism, Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NVLD) or even just slow processing speed).

Regardless of the cause, there are a few helpful ways to help your child develop their social skills.

Establishing positive peer relationships may be the most complex challenge for kids with social difficulties. They often have fewer friends, smaller social networks, and spend less time interacting with peers and instead, playing alone or at a distance. This often continues through adolescence and into adulthood – which is very unhealthy and unhelpful in so many ways! This can undermine your child’s physical and mental health, cognitive abilities, daily living skills, and educational/employment success.

Social competence allows us to recognise and understand social situations, initiate social interchanges, and respond to what a person is saying. This requires social awareness, interest, motivation, comprehension, memory, empathy – it’s an extremely complex process.

Social skills are the tools that enable social interaction to proceed e.g. eye contact, greetings, asking questions, listening, responding, and using/interpreting non-verbal behaviours.

So, intervention and skill building is key…

Here are some tips to help your child to develop their social skills:

  • Encourage your child to have play dates. If there are challenges, keep play dates short, highly structured and one-to-one. Start at home after school and then progress to meeting at the park, cooking a meal together, going to the shops together and then eventually, going on an adventure to the beach or a bike track and maybe even a sleepover.
  • Role-play friendly and unfriendly behaviours with your child. Start with different faces and then move to acting out friendly and unfriendly interactions with with toys or puppets, or by creating a play together.
  • Create a recipe for successful friendships. Start with a recipe for making friends and then move on to one for keeping friends. They might go something like this:
    • Show you care.
    • Always share.
    • Talk, listen and ask questions about them.
    • Play nicely together.
    • Allow them to play with others too etc…
  • Encourage your child to be a detective. Identify children in their circle with great social skills and ask your child to investigate whether that person is good at taking turns or good at showing they care. Reflect on this together and discuss the importance of friendly behaviours.
  • Investigate your child’s heroes. Jump on to Google and investigate your child’s hero. There’s a good chance they’ve been through some difficult times and had to overcome challenges and get along with others to become who they are today.
  • Provide you child with opportunities to practise friendly behaviours. Ask them to help bring in the washing, set the table, smile a little, feed the pet or pick some flowers for the garden and give them to someone.

If your child is having difficulties with social skills, try a more structured approach using the toys and games that we recommend, or email our team with specific questions at


Bloomquist, M. L. (2013;2012). Skills training for struggling kids: Promoting your child’s behavioral, emotional, academic, and social development. US: Guilford Publications Inc. M.U.A.

Case-Smith, J. (2013). Systematic review of interventions to promote social-emotional development in young children with or at risk for disability. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 67(4), 395-404. doi:10.5014/ajot.2013.004713

Promote your child’s social and emotional development with these toys:

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