As with times tables, proper spelling, and other academic skills, social skills can decline over summer vacation if children sit at home for months and ignore them. Yet, just as summer school and intensive tutoring in July and August can help kids catch up to their peers academically by September, so too can summertime be used for strengthening kids’ social skills and increasing their circle of friends before the new school year begins.
For children who struggle to make friends during the school year, the summer can be a valuable time to break free from their school-based social circles and form positive relationships with a variety of other peers. Follow these steps to learn how to maximize your child’s chance of success:
Choose the right activity.
Children are most likely to succeed in making friends when they are engaged in an activity that they love. While you might desperately want your video game-loving kid to get some exercise this summer, soccer camp is probably a poor choice if your child can’t stand organized sports. Crying or complaining about the activity is unlikely to attract new friends!
Play to your child’s strengths. What does your son or daughter talk about the most? If your daughter talks non-stop about animals, a nature program is where she’s most likely to find friends who share her passion. There are camps and classes out there for everything – coding, cooking, science, and movie-making camps are all alternatives to traditional sports and swimming summer programs.
Make sure the activity meets often.
Although it might seem like other kids make friends during chance meetings on the playground, these are unlikely to turn into lasting relationships without thoughtful follow-up. Even if your son enjoys splashing around in the pool with a boy he’s just met, it would be hard for him to turn that one-time interaction into a genuine friendship without repeated contact. Friendships tend to form over time when there are repeated opportunities to play together. If your child isn’t attending a daily camp program, try to ensure that the activities she’s enrolled in meet at least once per week to increase the odds that she’ll form a connection.
Identify potential friends.
Kids who struggle to form peer relationships often find it hard to identify potential friends. Even when they do report friendships, parents sometimes can’t help but wonder if the feeling is mutual. When possible, watch your child at the end of a program to see with whom she gets along well. If you can’t watch or if you find it difficult to tell, ask the group leader. Teachers and camp counselors are usually excited about helping facilitate new friendships and are likely to have good insight.
Make the first move.
Once you’ve figured out who might be receptive to an invitation from your child, approach the parents at pick up time or ask the group leader for contact information and call them. Suggest a specific activity and date.
Remember that parents and children often have busy summer vacation schedules, so it might be hard to set a time. Remember, there are many possible reasons that your playdate idea might be rejected! If unsuccessful at first, try again with a different family.
For an older child or teenager, help her brainstorm the activity and encourage her to ask peers herself, as those out of elementary school rarely have adults coordinate their get-togethers. If she’s nervous, role play with her until she feels more comfortable. Remember to rehearse staying calm and shrugging it off if the peer says no.
Keep playdates short and planned.
To help reduce the likelihood that kids will become bored with each other or get into an argument, first playdates should be short and sweet. Aim for two hours or less.
Inviting the child to your home with a vague plan to play can be a great choice once the friendship is established, but it’s not the best move for a first playdate. It might be hard for the kids to choose an activity, and the playdate could quickly become boring or contentious. Instead, choose a specific activity that you know both kids enjoy. Activities such as watching a specific movie or completing a craft project can take place in your home, while visiting a children’s museum or a zoo are good options for outings.
Have realistic expectations.
Summer programs can be a great way for your child to improve his social skills and make friends, but remember that summer vacation lasts only a few months. Celebrate small victories, such as a single successful get-together with a friend or even the exchange of social media usernames. If your child’s summer buddy doesn’t turn into a year-round pal, that’s okay. Even a short friendship is worthwhile if it helps your kid feel less lonely and learn new skills for the next friendship. There’s always next summer!
Does your child have social communication difficulties? The Child Study Center’s Social Learning Program offers a wide array of social skills group therapy services for children as young as 3 through young adults up to age 35. Groups are appropriate for individuals with social communication difficulties related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, depression, or other challenges. Both children and parents participate in separate weekly groups that run concurrently for 12-16 weeks. Clinical faculty and staff use evidence-based interventions based on research that shows positive long-term outcomes. For more information about our social skills group sessions in Manhattan, please contact our Social Learning Program intake team at 646-754-5284 or email email@example.com.
From the Real Experts at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone:
Arielle Walzer, MA, PsyM, is a psychology extern in Autism Spectrum Disorder service at the Child Study Center, part of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone. Rebecca Shalev, PhD, BCBA, is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone.