The Parent Coach: Helping Your Child Fit In Socially


Dr. Steven Richfield                                            


A parent writes, “With the start of school around the corner, my thoughts turn to the social challenges my son faces among his peers. He has a great deal of trouble fitting into the group. Other kids are annoyed by his tendencies to talk too much and demonstrate his knowledge. This has been going on for years despite my warnings that he should become more of an observer. He’s got one more year before high school. How do I coach him on becoming more socially savvy?”


Unlike academic skills, social skills are normally not taught in any formal way to children. Most of it takes place through observational learning, parent guidance, and intuition. Some kids develop a social repertoire that helps them start off conversations,

observe cues in their surroundings, deepen friendships, and navigate themselves within a wide range of encounters. Other children don’t seem to possess an inherent awareness of their social environment, sometimes due to the more dominant  need to educate or debate with others in social situations.


Coaching a child in need of improved social skills does not follow the “one size fits all” formula. It requires sensitivity to age, temperament, and specific limitations. Some children need more help with inhibiting their spontaneous behaviors while others must build greater confidence in asserting themselves. Here are some general guidelines that offer starting points for social skills coaching:


Speak to the child about the benefits of blending in rather than standing out. Blending means behaving in a way that doesn’t attract negative attention. Blending involves observing the circumstances and adjusting one’s behavior so as to fit within them. Many conversational behaviors help or hinder blending, such as tone of voice, volume of speech, questioning, interpersonal distance, and staying on topic.  In order to help your child become a better blender, use everyday situations to highlight where certain skills are needed. It also helps to propose hypothetical situations where the child is asked to distinguish between good and bad blending.


Introduce a social skills vocabulary to guide your child’s efforts. Since socializa-tion is amorphous to most kids, labels and metaphors can help them visualize the skills and goals. One format that I have found helpful is the “Rules Of The Road.” This asks kids to imagine their social world as a road  filled with clues that help them determine what directions to give to oneself. Clues may appear in the form of facial expressions, body posture, gestures, and a myriad of other nuances in the settings they find themselves.


Explain how their eyes are the best judge of the clues around them, and challenge them to list the available clues in those situations where you have been together.


? Emphasize the importance of tuning in to the people in their lives. This means not interrupting others, not assuming others want to hear them talk a lot, and not bringing up something totally different from what’s being discussed. Staying tuned in means asking questions, mentioning things that people have told them before, and showing their interest by looking in the eyes of others.


? Point out how their conversational skills are one of the most important measures that others judge them by. This will effect their ability to make and keep friends, the possibility that they will be the target of teasing, and the image that others carry about them. Explain how during conversations with peers, their first thought of what to say is not necessarily the best response. Suggest that they periodically ask themselves in their mind, “What’s a good blending thing to say right now?”


Dr. Steven Richfield is a child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA.  His column appears monthly. He has developed a child-friendly self-control/social skills building program called Parent Coaching Cards.  His new book, The Parent Coach: A New Approach To Parenting In Today’s Society  is available through Sopris West ( or 1-800-547-6747) He can be contacted at or 610-238-4450   .