Social initiation is when you take the first steps to begin playing or talking with another person; joining in a social activity or conversation.
Being able to approach someone, start up a conversation and share things about yourself are all important aspects of establishing a new relationship, but many kids have trouble breaking the ice with people they don’t know. Some children may find it easy to accept an invitation to join a group, but have difficulty initiating the invitation to ask others to join them. Understanding how to meet new people and join with them for a social activity or conversation is a life-long skill that gets easier with practice.
There is a difference between a shy or introverted personality and a child who struggles with initiating social interaction. Many people prefer quiet or solitary activities but can still conform to social norms and actively participate when they are in group situations such as at school or in the workplace.
It may be helpful to seek out a situation where your child can engage with new adults or peers, such as an activity group at the public library or an extra-curricular sports team. Step back and observe your child’s behavior. Does he seem comfortable approaching new children, and can he take turns correctly in conversation? Can he make “small talk” on appropriate topics or is he interjecting inappropriate or unrelated comments? Does he appear interested in what another person is saying, or is he changing the discussion to topics of his own interest?
How to Help
Point out the specific actions and words your child used that helped her initiate a conversation or game with another person. See if she can tell you ways of interacting that didn’t work for her. It is important to remember that sometimes good approaches still don’t work. These failures may be hard to cope with and make your child more hesitant to try again. Praise the specific approaches used, even if the outcome was not successful.
Let your child see you initiating conversation and acting friendly. By observing your successes and failures, she will continue to learn new strategies for interacting with others. If your child observes you resisting initiation or giving up when your approach to connecting with another person fails, she will learn from your actions more than your words. It is important to model “not giving up”, but trying again.
Act out the following scenes with your child to practice effectively initiating play or a conversation with others. Reinforce behaviors that are essential for successfully interacting with others such as smiling, waiting, listening, and staying on the topic of conversation.
- A group of kids are playing kickball. You want to play too, but the game has already started.
- A new kid just moved into your neighborhood and is sitting in his yard alone. You want to meet him.
Provide opportunities for your child to initiate conversation and play with other children. Go to places where other kids are strangers and have your child practice saying “Hi” and joining in. On the ride home, let your child tell you what were the hard parts and what were the easy parts of initiating play in a new setting. As your child’s confidence grows, look for more challenging ways for them to interact with others.
Ask your child, “Do you find it easy to go up to someone you want to meet and introduce yourself?” Talk about what makes it difficult for her, and for you, to start conversations. You can help your child see that such fears are common feelings by giving personal examples. If you were shy as a child or you get nervous when asking questions, let your child know about those feelings. The support she gets by being able to talk about her feelings with you will go a long way towards boosting her confidence with peers.