By: Stephanie Monaghan-Blout, Psy.D.
As parents and teachers, we want the world for our children, and one of the biggest worries is around social development and friendships. This worry is particularly acute when our child has a learning, emotional, or behavioral challenge that affects their functioning in school, the community, and at home. Knowing more about the developmental process and developmental expectations can help to identify challenges and develop appropriate interventions to support growth.
Human Development: A Dynamic Interactional Process
Human development is a dynamic and ongoing process between three factors:
- the “hard-wired” general road map that governs the emergence and refinement of brain and body systems for all humans
- the environment in which that development occurs, including relational components, such as availability of consistent attachment figures, threats to physical safety—including war, toxins in the water, etc., and access to resources, such as food, housing, education, and supportive family and friends
- Unique constellation of the individual learning, temperament, and emotional style that provides resources as well as vulnerabilities
The ways in which these three factors interact can be hard to predict—just look at the difference between siblings who grow up in the same home. Some children are more vulnerable than others by virtue of a temperamental that “runs anxious,” in the words of one of my parents, which causes them to perceive unexpected events as threatening. Another’s vulnerability comes from their difficulties with understanding how social interactions actually work. How much difficulty each one encounters is likely to be calibrated by other elements, such as a consistent, predictable learning and social environment that makes developmentally appropriate demands and provides clear, reasonable (for the child) expectations. This can be a little trickier because vulnerable children are often delayed in their social-emotional development. For this reason, it is important to know more about the stages of friendship to know where your child is and how to help them grow.
The Laboratory of Childhood Social Development: Stages of Children’s Friendships (Robert Selman) This is one of many schemas for the meaning of friendship changes as a child grows and develops. Again, remember that there is a wide range of normal development, and that children with other challenges may move more slowly.
Level 0: Momentary Playmates (approximately 3-7 years old) Proximity is key; friends are people who are nearby and with whom you can have fun. The child assumes that “everyone thinks like me” and assumes that if a playmate has a different opinion, “s/he doesn’t want to be my friend anymore.”
Level 1: One Way Assistance (approximately 6-12 years) Friends are people who do nice things for you, like share a snack. Having a friend is very important, more important than someone being nice to you. Friendship can be used as leverage (“I will/won’t be your friend if…”).
Level 2: Two-Way Fair-Weather Cooperation (approximately 6-12 years) The child can take another’s perspective as well as his/her own—but not at the same time. Fairness and reciprocity become really important in a rigid way (“If I do something nice for you, you must do something nice for me”). Children are very judgmental about themselves and assume that others think the same way about them. Fitting in is also really important, and jealousy can become prominent. It is the time for cliques and secret clubs.
Level 3: Intimate, Mutually Shared Relationships (approximately 11-15 years) Friends are people who help you solve problems and will keep your secrets. They do kind things for you and don’t keep track because they care about each other. Best friends become really important and spend all of their time together. They can feel betrayed if their friend spends time with someone else.
Level 4: Mature Friendship (approximately 12 years-adulthood) Friends place a high value on emotional closeness. Trust and support maintain the relationship, not proximity. Friends accept and even appreciate their differences, and for this reason, they are not as threatened by other relationships.
You will notice as you read through these stages that there some key cognitive skills needed for social development. These include:
- Self-regulation—the ability to inhibit impulses, control emotional reactions and manage behavioral responses . It also includes the ability to respond flexibly to changing demands.
- Awareness of Others/Theory of Mind—the ability to recognize the difference between self and other; that other people do not share your thoughts and feelings.
- Understanding of Norms, Rules, and Conventions—these are the agreed upon boundaries of expected behavior.
- Perspective taking—the ability to not only recognize that other people do not think the way that you do, but to actually try to understand things from their point of view (“stand in their shoes”).
- Mutuality-shared appreciation of each other and the reciprocal nature of the relationship.
Assessment: Before trying to intervene to help a child be more successful in making friends, it is important to distinguish between social skills and social competence. Social Skills are the discrete techniques for managing specific social interactions. These could range from maintaining eye contact to starting a conversation. Social Competence has to do with the overall ability to manage the variety of social demands in one’s environment. While we teach social skills, we are aiming for social competence. The criteria for social competence changes as children get older and the demands of their environment increase. This means that while a child may do perfectly well in one social environment, their mismatch in another could cause problems. Therefore, getting a general idea of how your child is thinking about friendship in relation to his peers is an important first step.
A second step in helping children become more socially competent is to figure out what the problem is. These problems can be divided into three general categories:
- Skill Acquisition—Does the child know what to do? For instance, does the child know the steps to take to initiate conversations?
- Skill Performance—Does the child have the motivation to perform the steps, and do they know when to do so (context)? For instance, does the child want to start a conversation, and do they know when to do so—like on the playground and not when the teacher is talking.
- Skill Fluency—While they may know what to do to start a conversation and when to do it, how good are they at it? Can they do it in a timely manner without obvious awkwardness? Is there something else, like anxiety, getting in their way?
The final impediment to learning and using social skills to achieve social competency is the interference caused by anxiety. Anxiety is the experience of feeling unsafe and helpless to control a situation. It sparks a cascade of physiological changes that facilitate the process of escape by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system—when the danger is over, a complementary system takes over (parasympathetic nervous system) to calm things down and return to equilibrium. However, when a child is continuously stressed by, say, an unfriendly school environment, their system never calms down. They become stuck in “threat alert” where any unexpected stimuli is given a negative interpretation and the survival reflexes of “fight/flight/freeze” take over. How to “turn off” the threat alert? Make a child feel safe through a supportive relationship and then teach them the skills they will need to gain more mastery over the situation.
About the Author:
Formerly an adolescent and family therapist, Dr. Stephanie Monaghan-Blout is a senior clinician who joined NESCA at its inception in 2007. Dr. Monaghan-Blout specializes in the assessment of clients with complex learning and emotional issues. She is proficient in the administration of psychological (projective) tests, as well as in neuropsychological testing. Her responsibilities at NESCA also include acting as Clinical Coordinator, overseeing psycho-educational and therapeutic services. She has a particular interest in working with adopted children and their families, as well as those impacted by traumatic experiences. She is a member of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) associated with Massachusetts Advocates for Children and the Harvard Law Clinic, and is working with that group on an interdisciplinary guide to trauma sensitive evaluations.
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Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.