Does your child often perceive himself as being right when he’s wrong and wrong when he’s right? Some children have a hard time picking up on other people’s expressions, body language or social cues. These kids are often prone to thinking they’re being disapproved of or disliked when they’re not.
Understand that reading social situations is a skill many kids with behavioral problems lack. Most kids acquire this skill as they grow: they learn to be more careful in situations where they might get in trouble or be hurt. Here’s an example of a child who is having problems learning this skill: let’s say that your child is in school and he gets out of his seat, even though it’s time for everybody to sit down. The teacher corrects him and tells him to sit down. Most kids have already taken their seats—they’ve learned to read that situation successfully. But when the teacher tells your child to sit down a second time, it triggers anxiety or frustration, which leads to increased behavioral control problems—and a diminished ability to see what’s actually going on. This cycle keeps repeating itself until your child develops a pattern of acting out around his inability to read certain social situations.
The Importance of Knowing How to Read Faces, Voices and Your Environment
Kids learn to get a majority of the information about their current social situation by reading people’s facial expressions and body language. This starts when they are infants and continues well on into adulthood. In one study, it was determined that more than 70 percent of a child’s perceptions comes from the looks they see on other people’s faces. Problems emerge for kids who have diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disabilities or behavioral problems that interfere with their developing the ability to accurately read social situations. What that means is that they simply don’t develop the skills to read social situations the same way that other kids do. And the misreading of these cues becomes one of the triggers for a lot of the behavioral problems that you see later on. That’s because they’re not getting the same information that the other kids are receiving. Don’t forget, a learning disability is an immature or malfunctioning part of a child’s neurological system. So the same data goes in, but the same solution—or behavior—does not come out.
For kids who have a hard time reading social situations and who tend to act or behave inappropriately, it’s vital that you work on it with them as a parent. If your child lacks these social skills, the good news is that this problem can be fixed.
7 Ways to Help Your Child Learn How to Read Social Cues
1. Use Photos to Help Kids Learn Emotions:
- For Younger Kids and Pre-teens: I recommend that you buy magazines and go through them with your child. As they look at pictures, ask them to tell you what each person is feeling or thinking by the look on their face. You can start to train your child that certain looks are connected to certain emotions. You can start to say things like, “How do you think that person is feeling?” They might say “Happy.” And you can say, “Well, I think they’re kind of confused. You see those little lines above their eyes, the way they’re squinting like that. People do that when they’re trying to understand something.” Teach your child what different looks mean: happy, confused, angry. Practice with them—and when I say practice, I mean repetition and rehearsal. These things have to be ingrained in kids by practicing it as much as possible, because that is the most effective way for them to learn.
- For Older Kids: Remember that your child’s willingness to do this exercise is key. If they’re not willing to do this with you, then forget about it. If they are, sit down with some teen magazines and talk with them. Have them make up stories about certain faces: show them a picture and ask them to tell you a one-paragraph story about the person. You can also watch a movie together and talk about the characters’ emotions. You can try using a reward in order to get them to work with you on this.
- By the way, I’m pretty frank with adolescents when it comes to their inability to read social situations. They don’t like that because they don’t want you to notice any deficit in their personality at all. The key is to associate your comments with something observable and realistic. I usually say something like this: “Look Tommy, part of your problem is that when you look at a situation, you don’t see it the same way that most other kids and adults do. When the other kids look at the teacher and the teacher says ‘sit down,’ they all sit down. What they see is a situation where they have to comply. What you see is a situation where you don’t necessarily have to do anything—that it’s up to you. But that’s not accurate, and that’s why you keep getting into trouble at school.” I follow that up by saying, “Tommy, if you can work on this with me, the misunderstanding like the one you had with your teacher today never needs to happen again.” I make it “right size” for the child, not something so huge he can’t tackle, and I put it in terms of his best interests. “You’ll never have to go through this again after you learn how to do it the right way.” To many kids, I think that’s a relief.
2. Use Narratives and Roleplays
- For Younger Kids: A good technique for younger kids is to do a narrative with them. You can say, “I’m going to walk into the store and I’m going to talk nicely to the sales lady, because I want her to be helpful. And even though I might get frustrated if I don’t get the right size, I’m not going to talk to her like I’m angry; I’m going to talk to her respectfully. In the situations where I want somebody to do something for me, the best thing I can do is be polite and respectful.” And then you role play it with them. You definitely, definitely have to role play—and role model—appropriately with these kids.
- For Older Kids and Teens: You can do role plays with teenagers, too. As a therapist, I would have them walk into my office four or five times in a row—just go back out and walk in—to practice how to enter a classroom and sit down. They’d walk in and I’d say, “Hey, Charlie, how’s it going?” And if they responded inappropriately to me, I’d say, “Wrong. Go back out.” They’d try again and I’d say, “Hey Charlie, how’s it going?” All they needed to do was wave and sit down. If they said anything rude, it was over. They thought this exercise was silly, but they did it. When they got it right, I’d say "Good, that’s the way you do it. Why don’t you try that in class?"
3. Break It Down into Bite-sized Pieces
- Trying to change everything at once is overwhelming for all kids. That’s why I recommend that parents use “discrete learning.” That means you break down whatever you’re working on into individual little pieces. So you can say “Today, when we go into the store I want you to try this skill: smile a lot and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’” Limit it to one skill or one situation at a time. Be sure to point out the results later. “Did you see how the waitress smiled back at you and brought you extra fries because you were so polite to her?” Always tell kids when what they are doing is working—it gives them an incentive to keep trying, just like it does with adults.
4. “Let’s Try an Experiment…”
- Another thing you can say to your child is, “Let’s try an experiment. Why don’t you try this today and see what happens.” It could be raising their hand before they talk in school or saying “hello” to the teacher when they walk in to class. You could also say, “What would you like to happen today with this person?” And then role play how they can make that happen. So connect the new behavior to real things in your child’s life, but again, do it discretely, one thing at a time: one person at a time, one situation at a time, one class at a time.
5. Work with Your Kids: Teach and Coach Them Forward
- Social skills are one of the areas where the teaching and coaching roles become very important for parents. Remember, when you take on the teaching role, what you’re really doing is helping your child to learn new skills. I think it’s okay to say, “People don’t respond well to you when you ______, “—and then fill in the blank. But that has to be coupled with, “Why don’t you try _______, instead. Here, let me show you.” Do a little interview with a short discussion. “Well, you know, teachers don’t like it when you talk out of turn in class, Maddy. That’s why you got detention. What do you think you can do differently the next time you want to talk out of turn? What can you do to remind yourself that you can’t do that?” And see what she says. Here’s the key: the next day before school, take your child aside and say, “Remember what you said you were going to do differently today,” and remind her about her plan: “When the teacher says, ‘Time to take out your books,’ you are going to stop talking to Riley and Jenna and you’re going to listen so you don’t get detention again.”
6. Teach Your Child to “Check Out Perceptions”
- It’s important for kids to be able to approach adults when they think they’re in trouble. They should be able to say, “Is something wrong” or “Did I do something wrong?” When they think their teacher is frowning at them in class, it’s helpful for them to ask that teacher later, “Did I do something wrong today?” It’s hard to do, but it’s a technique that will help them eliminate a lot of misunderstanding. One of the things that my son learned to say in our house was, “Are we okay?” or “Are you okay?” After work I’d be tired most days, and even though I was feeling pretty good, to my son, I looked grumpy and out of sorts. And I taught him to ask me, “Are we okay, or did I do something wrong?” And I’d usually say, “Yeah, I’m doing fine, I’m just a little tired.”
- We taught him to read us—and if he didn’t know what was going on, he learned to check it out. This is very important for kids. The first place they’ll need to learn that skill is with their parents, to say “Is something wrong; are we okay?” And it’s important to answer that question, because they could be reading disapproval on your face when you have a headache or are anxious about work. Kids personalize things, and from that personalization they learn self-talk. “Self-talk” is how we talk to ourselves all day long. It’s the key to almost everything, and the difference between thinking, “I can do this, it will be OK” vs. “I’m stupid. They all hate me.” Kids can easily take something the wrong way, and then they start talking to themselves about it. In the end, they might end up feeling like they can’t make anybody happy. So it’s very important for kids to learn how to check things out at home, especially if they have parents who are hard to read. And that’s certainly also true with teachers and other significant people in their lives.
7. For Kids Who Are Bullied
- Although I think kids should learn how to deal with bullies and kids who pick on them, I think it’s the school’s responsibility to protect kids while they’re in school. As a parent, if your child is being bullied, do not hesitate to call the school. And if your child has been physically harmed, do not hesitate to call the police. The techniques I’m sharing with you in this article are ways to help your child cope, but that does not relieve the school of the responsibility to make sure everybody is safe.
- Learning social skills and social cues is vital for all kids, but it’s especially critical for children who tend to be bullied. The first thing I say to kids who are bullied is “You’re not responsible. It’s not your fault. If somebody’s bullying you, they’re the problem.” The best strategy they can use is called “avoid and escape.” You can break it down for them like this: “Avoid the people who bully you and situations where you get bullied. If you find yourself in one, escape as soon as you can. Get out of there. In fact, the best way to deal with any threatening situation is avoid and escape. You avoid the situation: don’t sit at that lunch table. Or you escape: Don’t be the victim. Get up and go to another table.”
- If there are unavoidable places your child has to go during the day, like the bathroom or locker room, tell them to get in and out as quickly as they can. “You ignore the bullies or you try to avoid them. Get a pass from the teacher and go to the bathroom from class.”
- They also need to learn positive self talk. They need to be able to say, “This is not my problem. This is the bully’s problem.” And they need to be able to ask for help. Many, many schools today talk to kids about being bullied. As a parent, you can ask the school if they have a curriculum that teaches kids how to deal with bullies. And if they don’t, ask them why. Schools use curriculums schools that take only one day. They teach the kids about bullying: how not to bully, what to do if you’re bullied, and how to talk openly about it. As a parent, you should be looking into that kind of curriculum at your child’s school.
I firmly believe that if your child has a problem with reading social situations and social cues, it’s a very solvable problem. In my mind, repetition and rehearsal are the key. How do you deal with the problem of not writing well? You practice writing. Teaching kids social skills is really the same thing: it takes practice, it takes rehearsal, and it takes somebody demonstrating and showing them how to do it.
Don’t spend a lot of time on why they can’t read social situations well. I would tell kids, “Not being able to read social situations happens to a lot of kids. That’s why they’re always in trouble. As you become an adult you learn to read this kind of thing better. And some people lag behind. It just doesn’t happen to them as quickly as other people, and that’s OK.”
Remember, if your child is behaving inappropriately, whether it’s a result of a missed social cue or not, you still have to hold him accountable, as well as teach the new skill. Once your child knows how they’re expected to behave, you have to make him responsible for operationalizing and implementing it. And if you can’t hold him responsible for using it, his chances of learning the new skill go way down. If you don’t enforce it, he won’t have any reason to change. After all, you’re asking him to do something different, and “different” is usually perceived as “difficult.” People don’t like to change, so you have to stay on top of it and make sure your child is putting his learning into practice. The best reward for your child is that he will start to have more success with people in his life immediately—and that will translate into better behavior all the way around.
About James Lehman, MSW
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.