Does your child clam up when you introduce her to someone whom she has not met before? Does your child hide behind you when your neighbour, the friendly auntie who always has a smile for everyone, says hello?

“Sometimes I avoid taking the same lift as my neighbours, because they’ll talk to my son and he will ignore them or bury his face in my side,” admits Maggie Chan, mum to a four-year-old boy. “I wonder if it is my fault that he is like this. His dad and I are not very sociable, maybe he inherited the anti-social gene from us,” she adds.



Not to worry, assures Sanveen Kang. “Sometimes, children can take some time to become comfortable with others,” the Senior Clinical Psychologist at Dynamics Therapy Centre explains.

However, if the child remains shy and fearful no matter how many times she meets the same person, it may be a good idea to consult a clinical psychologist or a doctor, she says.

BORN TO SOCIALISE

Children are born to be social, Ms Kang confirms.

“Prior to birth, babies listen to sound of their mother’s voice and learn to distinguish it from that of others. Initially, children tend to develop socially through observation and modelling. As children grown older, they interact with their peers and with adults to learn socially acceptable behaviour,” she explains.

But whether a child grows up to be a loner or a social butterfly is not solely the responsibility of his DNA.

While a child’s genetic predisposition could shed some light on his temperament and social personality, these are also influenced by factors such as the parents’ relationship, stressful life events, negative maternal mental health or maternal substance abuse, shares psychologist Matilda Chew.

All these can affect the baby’s development during gestation, leading to possible future social difficulties. For example, if the mum-to-be was a substance abuser, her baby could be born prematurely, leading to long-term health complications.

“In this case, if the brain is under-developed, this could have consequences on the child’s ability to navigate more complicated life situations, such as peer or social relationships,” describes Ms Chew, who is from the Department of Paediatrics at the National University Hospital.

THE PARENT, THE MODEL

While there is no need to blame yourself just because your child is not a social butterfly, it would definitely help if you live a social life.

“Children learn through observation and modelling. If parents display lack of interest in social interaction or social anxiety, the child is likely to model these behaviours,” suggests Ms Kang.

In addition, if a child is not exposed to anyone other than his or her immediate family, he or she may experience fear when interacting with unfamiliar adults or children. These factors are likely to complicate social development and may be challenging for both the parent and child to overcome.

BUILDING SOCIAL SKILLS FROM HOME

Does sociability really matter? Indeed. Research shows that the development of social skills in children is very important in school readiness and also plays a big role in the child’s social integration in school, says Ms Kang.

One of the best ways to build social skills, she adds, is from home, from the parent. “It is widely believed that the everyday experiences of children in relationships with their parents are fundamental to the development of social skills,” Ms Kang shares.

Two key factors in the development of a child’s social competence are parental responsiveness and nurturance. Loving and responsive parents help children see the world in a positive way. In doing so, they expect – and receive – rewarding relationships with others.

“Children who display high levels of social competence typically enjoy parent-child relationships characterised by positive and agreeable interactions, acceptance, and sensitive behavioural exchanges in which parent and child respond to one another’s cues. Parents of competent children also minimise the use of physical punishment and coercive discipline,” she adds.

Our experts tell us more about children and sociability.

How do a child’s baby and toddler years influence his sociability?

Ms Chew:

Social behaviour develops from birth. Once a baby is born, the foundation to steady emotional development comes from the availability of her main caregivers and her ability to form a secure attachment to them.

The main caregiver to an infant is usually his or her mother. Caregiving can also come from other adults who live with and take care of the child, such as the other parent, grandparents, a helper, a nanny, or in the case of abandoned or bereaved children, the adults in their next foster parent(s) or main caregivers in the children’s home if they happen to reside in such a facility.

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The availability of such an adult with whom the infant/child could form a secure attachment with is important as it enables the child to develop a sense of trust in others and confidence with the self and with the world.

This then allows the child greater capacity to explore her life as she grows, including socialising with other children.

In cases where insecure attachments are formed (e.g. in cases of neglect/abuse, or constant changes in caregiving arrangements), the child quickly learns that her environment is unpredictable and unsafe. It is then natural progression for a child to become socially withdrawn and not seek out interaction with others.

Additionally, children model their behaviours from their caregivers. Thus, a child who is lacking in positive models in terms of social interactions would tend to adopt such interactional patterns and vice versa.

When does social behaviour begin, and how does it progress?

Ms Kang:

The development of social behaviour begins from birth. The early years of a child’s life present a unique opportunity for healthy development, and research has shown the great importance of the first five years of life. During these formative years, both positive and negative experiences are imperative in shaping the social development of children.

Social development milestones are often harder to specify than those of physical development. Social development is reflected in the ability of the child to pay attention, make smooth transitions from one activity to another, cooperate with others and, show interest in others and what they are doing.

Typically, social development progress from interest in parents, differentiation between familiar and unfamiliar individuals, social responsiveness, movement from isolated play to parallel play and subsequently joint play with individuals other than family members.

How can I tell if my child has a social problem?

Ms Kang:

One of the most common factors that assist in identification of a concern in social development is the child’s lack of interest in social interaction. Often parents would say that their child prefers to play alone or may tend to revert back to isolated play after playing with his or her peers for a short period of time.

Some other factors may include:

• Lack of responsiveness to name-calling
• Poor eye contact or limited facial gestures
• Lack of interest in engaging in joint activity with others (i.e. peek-a-boo, patty-cake)
• Poor receptive or expressive language, lack of gesturing to communicate
• Preference for isolated play or activities that do not include others
• Delays in play development and lack of interest in a variety of toys
• Socially inappropriate behaviour
• For older children, delays may be present in either/both initiating and sustaining friendships

How can I tell if it is not a developmental issue or a behavioural problem?

Ms Kang:

Formal assessments with qualified professionals, such as doctors and clinical psychologists, are key to diagnosing the cause of social problems. Challenges in social skills may be due to many underlying concerns. Hence, the correct diagnosis is crucial for the identification of treatment options.

How can I help my child to make friends?

Ms Kang:

• Involve your baby in your day-to-day interactions — when she or he is in a front-carrier or bouncy seat, s/he can watch the ways adults communicate.
• Tickle her or him. Any sort of tickle game teaches a baby how humour works and how to distinguish between serious human interactions and playful ones.
• Let your baby spend time with children of all ages. Children learn through observation and modelling.
• Expose your child to a variety of toys. Play interactive games.
• Encourage your child to play with others over watching TV or playing computer games.
• Enroll your child in social clubs and schedule play dates.

Introvert versus extrovert. Which is better?

Ms Chew:

There is essentially no better or worse between being an introvert or extravert.

Socially, a child who is more out-going would seem to have minimal difficulties navigating social situations. While introverted children may seem to have more difficulty with the same situations, they are commonly thinkers, self-reflective, creative, have strong ability to concentrate, studious, amongst other positive attributes associated with an introverted character.

Parents should not need to worry that their children are simply shy or prefer alone time, so long as they ensure sufficient social situations for their children to socialise with their peers in.

However, should the child show extreme avoidance of social situations that he should be comfortable with given his age, or should the child display signs of a lack of empathy or disinterest in others in the absence of negative life events, it is advisable for parents to seek the evaluation of a Paediatrician or Child Psychologist.

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