The effects of the yearlong pandemic on children have been well-documented. In addition to the academic toll, the social-emotional fallout has been significant with many kids becoming more anxious, isolated, and resistant to connecting with peers as time goes on.
Pre-COVID, you might have jumped in with sound social advice, but now your kids are unwilling to listen. The last thing they want is one more rule, especially if it has to do with social goals.
To improve your parent-child communication and to help your child build the social-emotional skills that have languished the past several months, Caroline Maguire, an expert on ADHD and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), recommends focusing on two techniques: asking open-ended questions and incorporating reflective listening. Together, these strategies will help your child to “take a bird’s eye view” of social situations—to reflect on and evaluate her past strategies and adapt them to be more productive in the future.
“For kids to navigate the social world effectively, they need to understand it,” Maguire explains. “The more we ask questions, the more we help our kids reflect.”
Open-ended questions—Who? What? When? Where? Why?—are prompts that require more than a simple “Yes” or “No” response.
“The beauty of open-ended questions,” says Maguire, “is that they encourage your child to talk freely and candidly about her friendships.” They allow her to reflect on her social world, hear her own perspective, and evaluate her efforts, abilities, and needs more clearly. In other words, open-ended questions promote “self-talk”— that essential inner voice that comments on our actions and serves as our internal rudder.
Rather than telling your child, “You won’t have friends if you refuse to hang out with anyone/join any groups,” ask, “What happened to Jamie?” “How come you don’t spend time online together?” or “What don’t you like about that particular group?” Follow up with, “What other group might you enjoy?” “What’s scary about reaching out to other kids?” “What would help you try to connect more?” Because you’re no longer “telling” your child what to do, your questions should lead to less conflict and make her more receptive to hearing your perspective.
Reflective listening—sometimes referred to as active listening—requires that you verbally respond to your child in a non-judgmental way such as repeating, confirming, clarifying, accepting, expressing sympathy, and using “I” and “You” statements.
With social distancing, many kids have lost the desire to reach out to peers. Your child might admit: “I know you want me to have a plan, get up on time and create structure, but I don’t see the point.” Instead of going into “tell-mode” or getting upset, repeat her statement back without giving an opinion: “So you don’t see the point of having structure because we’re in this online world.”
When you reiterate and encapsulate her statement, you confirm that you’ve captured her thoughts and feelings accurately. By remaining nonjudgmental, you accept and validate her sentiments and verify that you’re sympathetic to how she’s feeling: “I hear you.” “I get it.” “That must be hard.”
Use “you” and “I” statements, such as, “You are overwhelmed” and “I’m sad you are lonely.” If she says you misheard her, let her correct any misconceptions you may have: “Maybe I didn’t understand the situation fully.” When you’re wrong, kids often start opening up.
Addressing Specific SEL Concerns
Lacking empathy: Throughout your day, help your kids step into other people’s shoes.
- When your child is rude or indifferent to you, collaboratively talk about her behavior and ask her to interpret how her behavior made you feel: “How do you think I feel when you correct me or yell at me? What did you mean to do?”
- When she lacks compassion toward other people, help her reflect on the other person’s state of mind: “What do you think is going on in Janie’s life?” “What did you notice about her reaction to your behavior?” “What do you think she’s feeling now?” “What did her facial expressions tell you about her feelings?”
Alienating others: When your child is distancing other kids with her behavior (e.g., interrupting or yelling at them while playing games online), have her reflect on the social dynamics and her place in the larger group.
- Instead of saying, “You don’t seem to get how to act on video games. You’re going to put off potential friends,” ask, “What do other kids do when they become frustrated playing that game?” “What’s the group situation like?”
- Talk about how you can work together on staying calm and find times and places to practice emotional regulation.
Shutting down: Your child might become frustrated after answering only one question and not want to extrapolate, responding with “Enough of the questions.”
- Try having 30-second talks instead of long ones: “We’re just going to have short chats. But, when we do, I need you to engage.” Then explain why you need the information. “I’d like to figure out what the situation is. I’m going to reflect to you what I think is going on.”
- She might also loosen up if she’s involved in something she enjoys while talking to you, such as playing video games or doing yoga stretches.
Choosing the wrong friends: If you dislike your child’s friends or think they treat her badly, have her reflect about friendship in general and her relationships in particular: “What’s enjoyable about this friendship?” “What do you think friendship should feel like?” “Who else might you like to hang out with?”
- Her responses will give you the opportunity to hear her point of view. Maybe her friend has positive traits you didn’t know about. On the other hand, maybe your child is stuck because she doesn’t think she can make other friends during COVID.
- Your questions can lead her to re-think a harmful or one-sided relationship and open her mind to reaching out to other potential friends.
This article is based on an ADDitude expert webinar, Social Emotional Learning for Children with ADHD in Quarantine, by Caroline Maguire, PCC, M.Ed., ACCG. Maguire is the founder and facilitator of a comprehensive SEL training methodology (#ConnectionsMatter), and author of Why Will No One Play With Me? Eve Kessler, Esq., a former criminal appellate attorney, is Executive Director of SPED*NET Wilton (CT), and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.