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Adopted 5 Year Old Lacking Social Skills

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Dear Dr. Laura,
My question regards my 5-year old son and his recent behavior – and how I can help him.

I'm feeling like a bad mom for my influence in this and I'm hoping there is some way to help him get on track in getting along with other kids.

Before I get to the actual question though, here is some background: I'm a single mom and my son is adopted (from Guatemala); we became a family when he was 11 mos. old. He's always needed to have me close by - by that I mean he's had a lot of separation anxiety, likes/wants to be held a lot, gets jealous when I don't give him my undivided attention (he gets jealous if I hold our kitten because he says I love it more than him, he gets jealous if I talk to other children in our neighborhood, etc.). He also seems a bit less socially mature than his peers because he really has a hard time sharing, seems to “talk at” other kids rather than interact with them, etc.

He's gotten more mature over the past year, but still seems a bit younger acting than many 5-year olds. He's also small for his age, compared with kids born in the US. We have several other children in our neighborhood within a similar age range to F (they range from 4 to 9), including one boy who is just a couple of months younger than my son. Until the past year or so, F didn't want to join in and play with them most of the time (they are always out in front of our houses during free time, playing in a group or in subgroups). He was very shy and would only approach them if I was there with him, but still wouldn't interact much. I tried to spend as much time with them (and their parents) in the area in front of our houses as I could to help him get used to being around them and to help him overcome his anxiety about joining in. His small size and his desire to be with me (and have me hold him) led to the perception, among the neighborhood kids, that he is younger than he really is.

F started preschool last year, after having been in a small home daycare from age 13 months old, and he had a very difficult time transitioning. He basically cried everyday at drop-off for preschool for about 3 months. However, once he started to feel more at home there and became more confident, he loved it and really started to blossom. He started interacting more with his classmates, participated in the class, etc. He also started to interact a bit with our neighborhood children.

He still has issues with sharing and I feel like he still isn't totally attuned to other kids in social situations, but it's much better than it used to be. I really debated within myself whether to send him to kindergarten this year (he turned 5 in April) or to keep him for an extra year in preschool. In the end, because he had blossomed so much in preschool, I decided to give kindergarten a chance. I think he tends to rise to the challenge that he's given a lot of the time.

The kids in the neighborhood were very surprised that he would be going to kindergarten because they didn't think he was old enough… Note: So far, he's doing fine with kindergarten. He hasn't had any problems separating from me to go to school, he seems to have the routine at school down and likes it and he goes to an after-school program (housed in the same place as his former preschool) and likes that too.

After all that background, my concern is about his ability to interact with other kids. I ask him if he has friends at school and I don't really get an answer. He generally played well with his preschool classmates, although sharing was sometimes an issue, but he often played by himself then and I think he must do that in kindergarten as well (just my sense based on how he doesn't really answer my question about friends). While I think he's one of those kids that enjoys playing alone, I don't think that's the sole explanation. I think sometimes he doesn't know how to join in or his intent is socially awkward and other children of his age don't want to play with him or, if they do, they treat him as a much younger child.

A couple of times over the past few weeks he has told me that he doesn't need friends, he only needs himself. I see this specifically with the other kids in our neighborhood now. He has problems with one little boy in particular and I really don't know what to do about it. This boy, will be 5 in September. He's very tall for his age and I'd say he's more socially mature than the average 5-year old. He loves to play with any kids and joins into activities very quickly and easily. In several ways, he and F have opposite temperaments. I'm friends with the other child's parents and we've tried to foster them playing together – because we live so close to each other, they are close in age, etc. They do play together, sometimes just the two of them and sometimes as part of a larger group of children.

However, whenever they are together, it inevitably escalates into arguing – they almost remind me of brothers that are constantly picking at each other and deliberately trying to provoke an argument. F will say one thing and the other boy says the opposite and vice-versa. I don't see the other boy act this way with other kids, although I do see F act this way sometimes with other children (although not to the same extent). The other boy's parents are frustrated with it and so am I. The other day, he came over to our house to play (F wanted him to), but they argued a lot of the time. The other child was no angel, but I was appalled at how F was acting. He literally screamed in the other child's face when he disagreed with him, he said multiple times that he didn't want to be the other child's friend, he ran out of the room a few times saying he wanted to get away from him he refused to share certain toys, etc. The other boy told F he was a baby and just generally disagreed with everything that F said. I started out trying to be calming and get them to play well together, but as the arguing escalated, I'm afraid I let my frustration get the best of me and ended up yelling at both of them for arguing. I've been getting angry like that at F more lately, so this isn't really an anomaly, unfortunately. In the morning, we walk with this other child and another neighborhood girl (7 yrs. old) and their mothers to school (he is also in the same kindergarten, although in a different classroom).

Today, F took one look at the other child, and said “Stop, you're not my friend.” Then, as we were walking, he said that after school, he wants to gather his things and run away to somewhere where this child isn't. Meanwhile, the other boy and the little girl (they are good friends) walked behind us, saying something about how F was grumpy and acting like a baby.

I understand that kids can't always get along, but what bothers me most is my son's way of dealing with this conflict. When he says “stop!!!!” , I hear myself because that's what I say to him when he's doing something I don't like. I just feel like I haven't given him any good tools to handle his anger, so instead he's lashing out and being mean and immature, which ultimately only makes it worse for him with this particular little boy. And, I have to admit that it's embarrassing to have my son act like this in front of other parents, it just seems like my son is mean and I haven't taught him any manners.

And, what if he acts like this with other kids at kindergarten? Perhaps I made the wrong choice in sending him this year?

What can I do to try and help my son? I feel angry with him at times, sad for him at other times, worried overall and guilty that somehow this is my fault and I don't have the skills to make it better.

Thanks very much,


Dear P,

I'm glad you wrote. We all want our child to be socially accepted and to experience the joy of connecting with peers. Naturally you're embarrassed about your son's behavior. More importantly, you're worried about his ability to make friends. The warning signs you're seeing will not just go away. Your son needs your help to develop the emotional and social skills he needs for healthy peer interactions.

Most of us don't know much about these emotional and social skills. They just seem to unfold magically in children. But, actually, the foundation for those skills is laid down during the first year. Unfortunately, your son missed normal interaction during that first year, until he found you. So he needs your help to do some remedial work.

It is my experience that children who are adopted after the first few months almost always have delays of some sort. One mother whose son came to her from Honduras when he was ten months old told me that she felt he was "in limbo" waiting for her, not really developing. Once they were united, he began hitting the developmental milestones of a younger child. She always felt he was about ten months younger than his actual age.

Given what we now know about infant brain development, this makes perfect sense. Babies' brains don't just develop, the way their arms do. Human brains are highly flexible, designed to respond to the environment. So our brains develop depending on our interactions with others. In our first year, we learn the dance of intimacy, in which we gaze at our parent, who gazes back. We smile, she smiles. We feel over-stimulated and look away, she respects our need for a moment of calm space and waits patiently for us to return to the interaction. This is one of the ways we learn the give and take of human interaction, which is a foundational social skill.

At other times, when we are upset, our parent calms us. Our brain is flooded with soothing neurochemicals. Every time this happens, the pathways in our brain that release these soothing neurochemicals are strengthened, which results in our emerging ability to soothe ourselves.This is a critical skill throughout life, since our anxiety and fear drives most aggression and conflict with others. Managing our emotions allows us to manage our behavior with others. The ability to self-soothe is also the seed of empathy.

By the end of the first year, babies have a tremendous number of capabilities that form the foundation for social skills. First, they can hopefully soothe themselves when upset. Second, babies have decided whether it's a friendly universe. If they run into a problem, will help come, or are they on their own? Third, babies have drawn conclusions about what relationships are like and whether they are safe and rewarding. Finally, babies will have definite opinions about whether there is enough to go around, which helps determine their generosity and aggressiveness.

My hypothesis is that your son may be a bit behind on all of these skills. It's not easy to make them up, but it is possible with your help. However, intervention is needed, or his peers will outstrip him and begin to shun or bully him.

What can you do?

1. Find a place to work out your own feelings so you can help your son. Naturally you get upset when he acts inappropriately with other children, and in your frustration and fear, you want to scream. But what he needs at that point is help with his feelings, and modeling from you about how to work out the difficulty. If you scream, he will soon be screaming at his playmate. It would help you enormously to have someone to talk to. This person could be a counselor or a friend. For some people, a journal even works; others need a real listener. What you don't want is someone who will be judgmental or insist that you should discipline your son to "teach" him. You are looking for someone who will simply help you process your own feelings.

2. Play with your son daily as much as possible. First, play with him like a peer. This helps him learn peer skills. In other words, negotiate with him about what game to play, just as a peer would. But you will be more patient and helpful than a peer would, in exploring options, expressing differences in opinion, etc. "You want to play trains, and I want to go outside and run around...what should we do?...Do you think we could do your idea first for 15 minutes and then my idea second? But because I have to wait for my game, maybe we should do that a bit longer?"

Second, play games with him that help him develop the skills he needs to take turns, follow rules, delay gratification, and manage his impulses. Studies show that games such as "Red Light Green Light" , "Duck Duck Goose" and "Follow the Leader," help kids develop these abilities, which they need to play with other kids in a positive way.

3. Roleplay with him. Tell him you want to help him learn how to solve problems with other kids. Tell him he should pretend to be another child who wants his toy, and you will be him. Then reverse roles. As you keep playing versions of this "game" over time, you can get him to suggest other problems he runs into with kids (like wanting to join in a game on the playground) so you can role play solutions with him. Having these experiences with you will give him more options when he finds himself in the same situation with a peer. Make these games fun. The more you get him giggling, the more he's releasing anxiety about these interactions, as well as learning new skills.

4. Read books with him about social interaction. On my website, there's a whole page of books to read with kids that promote emotional intelligence, all of which will be helpful to your son. You'll notice that some of these books are specifically about social intelligence.

Books to Help Kids Develop Emotional Intelligence

There are MANY more books out there that deal with the themes of social skills and friendship, if you browse online, a bookstore, or at a library. For instance, How Kids Make Friends: Secrets for Making Lots of Friends, No Matter How Shy You Are by Lonnie Michelle, is written for shy kids, but it's great to give kids an understanding of the process. Use these stories as a jumping off point for discussions and role playing. Notice his reactions to reading them. For instance, if such a book makes him sad, hold him while he cries and offer empathy, reflecting his feelings as he expresses them: "You feel left out at worry that no one wants to play with you...." If he gets angry, that's a defense against his deeper fear and sadness. Reflect that also: "That book makes you mad and worry about whether you can have good friends..." After he has a chance to express his feelings, once he seems to be feeling better, reassure him that you love him no matter what, and that once kids get to know him, they will love him too. Explain that you two will keep role playing so he learns how to make good friends.

5. Teach, model and interface during playdates. Kids often need our help to navigate social situations. There's no shame in getting into the sand box to model and help him negotiate with other kids. Your presence will also help him feel safer, so he's less likely to veer into aggression. So for now, understand that you will need to stay very present during playdates to provide calm and negotiating skills.

Here are some articles that give examples of how you can do this:

How to Help 4 Year Old Make Friends on Playground

Toddler Hitting Other Kids - I know this is written about a younger child, but the description should be helpful to you about how to help your son with his feelings during playdates.

6. Teach and model during your every interaction with him.
Kids all have their personalities, but they will copy what we do to a large degree. If you yell at him, he will yell at others. I don't know what kind of discipline you use, but I encourage you to check out the section of my website on discipline:

Discipline that Works

The more you're able to parent in a positive way, the more hell relate to peers in a positive way.

7. Help him "vent" his fears. All small children find numerous daily reasons to feel fearful. I have never met a child who was adopted after a few months old who did not have some fear to work out. In your son's case, his fears are being expressed very directly: If you pet the kitten, he fears you love the kitten more. How is this related to his peer relationships? First, he has less practice, because he has been too fearful, so he's been clinging to you rather than joining in. (Pushing him away would exacerbate the problem, btw, the only solution is to help him work through his fear.)

Second, when children are afraid (as every child is at times), they respond as all humans do. They become less flexible, less generous, more wary, more aggressive. They have a harder time simply playing. They lash out.

Your son needs help with some big feelings. I would start by focusing on his feelings about sharing. These are the same feelings he has about sharing you with the kitten. Your son can't be blamed for feeling this way. When he was an infant, he was powerless and dependent, and he probably felt, frequently, like there was not enough to go around. Babies in orphanages sometimes actually die from lack of touch, so he may well feel that sharing attention or toys (both symbolizing love and sustenance) threaten his very existence. Most young children feel this to some degree and are challenged by sharing, but for your son this is a primal issue: If he shares, he might die.

To help him with this, I recommend that you help him access those fears and show them to you. Luckily, when humans feel and express their emotions, the feelings dissipate. It's when we stuff them down and try to repress them that they burst out and drive our behavior. So your son's aggression around sharing is almost certainly directly connected to his fear. To help him feel that fear, and express it, you can "schedule a meltdown." By that I mean, you can pick a time when you are well rested and feeling patient and loving, and help him "process" his feelings about sharing.

Begin talking with your son about sharing. To make this real, it's helpful to have an upcoming playdate you can refer to, in which he will be expected to share. But since your son is so triggered around this issue, even a general discussion might be sufficient for him to feel all those upsetting feelings about sharing, as soon as you raise the issue. Hold him or sit close, on the floor with him, so he feels safe. Your goal is to help your son feel safe enough to feel those fears and show you them, or tell you about them, or act them out.

As you suggest to your son that at this upcoming playdate, he will be expected to share with the other child, acknowledge that this is hard for him. Look him in the eye. The eyes truly are the windows to the soul, and it helps us all to connect to our deeper emotions when we meet the kind, loving eyes of someone who cares about us.

When he begins to cry, empathize. Your goal is to help him to let out all these feelings, so stay kind and calm and just keep letting him know he's safe. This article gives you a good example of how to do this:

Angry 5 Year Old

8. Play games to help your son vent and to develop emotional intelligence. Children express their fears through tears, but they also work them out through play. That's one reason we think of play as children's work. So the more you can get your son giggling, the less you'll have to help him work out emotions by crying. You have two goals in these kinds of games: Helping him vent his feelings, and strengthening your relationship so he feels comfortable showing you his deep feelings.

This article is a good example of how to help him vent about his social experiences:

How to help 4 year old who's been bullied

For games to strengthen your relationship:

Games to bond and build emotional intelligence:

9. Work to help your son develop Emotional and Social Intelligence

There's a whole section on this website about helping your child develop Emotional intelligence and another on

How to Raise a Socially Intelligent Child. I think you'll find a lot of guidance on these pages to help you.

You might also do some additional work to help your son read social cues by making faces with him. Have him say things to you and make faces in response. Ask him what feeling you are showing him with your expression. For instance, if he says something mean, you can look hurt. Make this a fun game by exaggerating your responses. The more he giggles, the more he is letting off his anxieties about such social interactions, and the more helpful it is to him. Hopefully, he will love this game so much that he'll become quite adept at reading the expressions of others!

10. Consider having your son assessed. This may seem premature. After all, he is only five. But problems with social skills are sometimes the first indicator of broader issues. Specifically, your son is missing social cues, is behind on developing empathy, and is having a hard time regulating his emotions. I am hoping that your consistent and dedicated intervention using the other suggestions I've given will yield positive results within a few months and you will see progress in all these areas. However, if your son is still having significant social issues in three months, I urge you to have him professionally evaluated. It may be that he needs some extra help.

I realize you're a single mom and this might be overwhelming to you. I encourage you to get some support to work on these issues intensively over the next few months. The longer your son goes without confidence in this area, the harder it is to make up these deficits. I do believe that with these kinds of interventions, you will see positive change. One thing you might consider is joining one of my parenting groups that meets by telephone. I realize you work, but maybe one at lunch hour would be possible? Just a thought, since it would give you ongoing support for six weeks as you try this all out.

In any case, I send you and your son blessings.
Dr. Laura

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