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In our practice we see a unfortunate number of children with friendship problems. It can be one of the more painful issues that arises for our clients. But there is also hope - some good resources are available to help children with social skills difficulties, and there is much that parents can do to help.
What we hear from some of our families is that their children "feel" and act younger than they are, and gravitate towards younger children, or are more drawn to adults than peers. It can be hard for them to share conversation; they may divulge too much personal information, or have difficulty finding interests in common. They may have trouble joining their classmates in play. They often lack a sense of how to be a good host when having friends over (controlling the play, etc). Boys may take things too far, getting too rough or out of control. Girls may be clingy or bossy. Children may not get invited to play-dates or parties, and may lack a good friend. All of this may be confusing for both parent and child.
Childhood friendship problems is a topic that raises strong feelings in many adults. I don't know anyone that had a perfectly socially successful childhood, and just reading the previous paragraph can bring up memories of loneliness and rejection. When we see our children having such difficulties, it's truly challenging to stay present and clear-minded about what's going on. But it is important to find a balance of appropriate concern and involvement. Blaming the peer group, assuming things will be better in another school, or otherwise neglecting the issue isn't helpful; neither is overreacting, anxious hovering in social situations, or trying to bribe or force other children to include your child.
Social skills problems in the context of foster care and adoption have not been well-researched, but the causes likely lie in a combination of:
These risks are not shared by all of the adopted children that we see, but they are more common. In the world of social skills interventions, many of the participants are children (boys, usually) with ADHD, acting-out behavioral problems, or autistic spectrum issues. If you substitute "institutional autism", or general lack of appropriate formative social experiences, that's a combination of issues that fits many adopted and fostered children.
The literature on social skills problems in general suggests that there are a few patterns of peer problems that are most worrisome, and deserving of intervention. Researchers in this field often categorize children by interviewing their peers to come up with how liked (or not) and influential they are. This all sounds a bit harsh, but no one knows better how children are doing socially than their peer group, and the categories that follow aren't nearly as hurtful as peers can be. In this research context, children are grouped as:
Interestingly, "popular" as derived from peer ratings is not the same as just asking who's popular. The "sociometrically popular" kids are well-liked, good problem-solvers, and trustworthy, in other words: a good friend. The "popular kids" are actually seen as dominant and "stuck-up". Neglected children may be shy or less motivated to join peers; they seem do well academically, and can start over in new groups and shed the "neglected" status. Controversial children are sociable but tend to use more social aggression and hostility; this also may not be a very stable category over time.
But the "rejected" group is the most concerning. Children with rejected status in one group tend to be rejected in new groups as well. Without intervention, they are likely to stay rejected over time, and are more likely to have later difficulties with delinquency and adult maladjustment.
Children who are classified by observers as socially withdrawn, plus rejected by peers (thus, not withdrawn by choice), are more likely to have internalizing problems like depression and anxiety. There are two sub-groupings of boys who are rejected: rejected plus aggressive (verbal aggression, rule-breaking, etc), and rejected with odd, immature, or "quirky" behaviors. The rejected-aggressive boys are more likely to have academic difficulties and ADHD. Girls have rates of rejection similar to that of boys, but are a lot less likely to be referred to social skills interventions; it may be that rejected boys stand out more and have more externalizing behaviors, while rejected girls have fewer overt problem behaviors.
If this sounds like your child, you should consider learning more about how to help your child with play dates and friendships (since you've got the potential to make a big positive impact), and explore local options for social skills groups. Here are a few tips, but the resources that follow will be more helpful:
One book for parents that I've really liked is Best of Friends, Worst of Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children . Several of the tips above come from this book, which deftly summarizes the research about how children's friendships evolve as they mature, and has solid suggestions for each developmental stage. Another book is "It's So Much Work to Be Your Friend: Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities Find Social Success". But having a good book probably isn't enough for children that fall into the socially rejected category. That's where social skills groups come in ...
Social skills interventions for children do exist that have been well-studied, and show measurable improvements in parent and teacher ratings of social success. One such intervention is Children's Friendship Training , which was developed at UCLA. Some of their work has specifically looked at children with ADHD, ODD (oppositional-defiant disorder), ASD (autistic spectrum disorders), and even FAS (fetal alcohol syndrome). I like this approach, as they've evaluated it with the types of problems my patients have, they have a rigorous approach to testing their program in general, and they include an important parent educational component which helps the gains children make in group generalize to the rest of their lives.
Contributed by Dr. Julian Davies from the Center for Adoption Medicine at the University of Washington. Dr. Davies and Dr. Julia Bledsoe offer pre-adoption consultations and do wonderful work for families adopting children from all over the world.
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