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SocializingSocial Awkwardness

Social Awkwardness in Children

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Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 30 Nov 2022
Published 28 Mar 2022

What is Social Awkwardness in Children?

Social awkwardness in childhood is the tendency to act oddly or unusually around peers or adults. The child may hide behind their mom’s leg when meeting new people, avoid social situations, or seem abrasive in interactions with peers. 

“Kids with these issues may seem like a square peg in a round hole. They may seem uncomfortable in their own skin. Even when they are right where they should be, they may seem out of place.” 

If your child is a bit awkward socially, your relationship is paramount. Make sure you are still having fun as a family. Provide lots of time for your child to unwind and be a kid.

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Symptoms of Social Awkwardness in Childhood

  • The bull in the china shop: a child who socializes this way may barge in on a group of kids or aggressively join into a game without following the rules
  • The wrecking ball: a child who socializes like this will walk up to a group of kids playing with a train set, break the track, and throw all the train cars on the ground
  • Extremely shy: a child who is extremely shy may go to extreme lengths to avoid being around peers and may play alone at recess
  • Incessant question asking: a child may join a group of kids playing and incessantly ask, “will you play with me?” The kids may be confused because they are already playing together. Or a child may keep asking, “will you be my friend” which will get irritating to peers
  • Excessively chatty: a child may talk on and on without letting any peers chime into the dialogue. It is like your child is the ‘one-man show’ and is paying no attention to how the conversation is going
  • Restricted interests: a child may prefer to talk about highly specific topics like dinosaurs or volcanos. The other kids may become annoyed after your child refuses to shift to a new topic
  • Overly formal: a child may use big words too mature for their age. The child may sound like a little professor giving a lecture
  • Bossy or inflexible: a child may insist on all of the play going a certain way. The child may say, “you are this guy, okay?” “And my guy always beats your guy, alright?” Other kids may get annoyed with your child always insisting on being right or winning the game
  • Socializes only on social media: social media can be an outlet for awkward teenagers interested in chatting about video games and anime, but it can also be detrimental because of all of the anger, aggression, and bullying behavior in social media. If your teenager engages here as a social outlet, do monitor it and make sure social media is not making things worse

“Socially awkward kids will have trouble as they enter new peer groups. The kids may initially get along fine, and then your child may be left out or rejected from the group.” 

Causes of Social Awkwardness

New environment 

It is pretty common for kids to be a little socially uncomfortable when they move to a new school or a new state. If your family moved from another country or cultural context, it is normal for it to take a bit for your child to assimilate to your new setting.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) 

Some children with ADHD may have an intrusive or overly hyper style of socializing. They may seem overbearing or constantly move to the point that the conversation is disrupted.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Many kids with ASD will have social awkwardness as a hallmark symptom. The lack of social reciprocity is a primary symptom of autism. Children and teens with autism struggle with social skills deficits and may appear very awkward.

Want to know if your child’s challenges are a sign of Autism Spectrum Disorder? Cadey courses are taught by licensed psychologists and walk you through the symptoms of autism and how they may present in your child. Sign up today.

Social anxiety 

Children or teenagers who are socially anxious can often appear very awkward, avoid eye contact, display a lack of confidence, and over-interpret cues of rejection like perceiving another person’s body language as disinterested. You may find an anxious child experiencing social isolation.

Giftedness

Some gifted kids may have trouble socially due to being either overly intense in their social style or overly ‘academic’ in their interactions. Other kids may feel the kid sounds like an adult or seems ‘off’ because of the constant focus on overly mature topics. The child may also feel like a bit of a ‘know it all’ to peers, which can cause problems

Developmental trauma

Trauma is not a super common reason for social awkwardness, but it is something to consider. Developmental trauma is the response to an environment perceived as unsafe by the developing child. When a child’s need for connection, trust, attunement, autonomy, or love goes unmet, the child may develop a rigid behavior pattern to cope with the ongoing perceived threat. 

Survival styles for children with trauma

Dr. Heller teaches in Healing Developmental Trauma that the traumatized child dissociates from their experience using an ‘adaptive survival style’ [1]. 

  • Connection survival style: a child who feels that they are unsafe in the care of others will have intense fears of being close to people and an intermittent battle with the extreme need for connection
  • Trust survival style: a child who feels it is unsafe to trust others will only trust oneself and may bulldoze over others to stay in control
  • Attunement survival style: a child who feels the environment is not attuned to their needs will decide to ignore their own needs and attune to the needs of others
  • Autonomy survival style: a child who feels it is unsafe to say ‘no’ to others will go along with the agenda but secretly resent or rebel against the instructions
  • Love survival style: a child who believes that the only way to get love is to perform or achieve will go to extreme lengths to impress others and to appear to be perfect

Remember, for all of these styles above, healthy families and excellent parents can still have kids with these mental health issues. Your child is being raised in an environmental context that exists outside your home and is largely outside of your control.

“When your child struggles with social skills, it can be heartbreaking for the whole family. Take heart and do not give up. Some therapies and interventions can help your child get along better with peers.” 

What to Do About Social Awkwardness Issues in Children

  • DO: set up playdates with nice kids from the neighborhood or school 
  • DON’T: let playdates go on for too long. Often an introverted or socially uncomfortable child will feel exhausted after a couple of hours around peers
  • DO: supervise playdates or at least keep an ear out for peer conflict. You will want to know if your child is doing something that is causing social difficulties
  • DON’T: expect your child to be best friends with every kid you know of the same age. It is perfectly normal for your child to have preferences for certain peers or personality types
  • DON’T: ignore social difficulties in your child. Many interventions can help your child feel more comfortable in social situations

When to Seek Help for Social Awkwardness in Children

If your child is really struggling to make friends, there is a lot you can do to help. The main reason to get involved is that your child may start feeling sad or isolated by the situation. 

Although it is hard for a parent to hear that their child played alone at recess on a certain day, this situation isn’t always problematic for kids. Your child may prefer to do their own thing once in a while, which is not a cause for concern.

The time to start looking into this issue is when there is seemingly an endless trail of social interactions going sideways. You may be getting emails from the teacher that your child isn’t getting along well with classmates. If this happens, get curious. Your child’s teacher or school counselor may be able to provide some insight.

Therapeutic Resources for Social Awkwardness

  • School counselor: ask your child’s school counselor to observe your child around peers and give you feedback
  • Child find: if your child is struggling socially before the age of five, it will be helpful to contact your local Child Find provider, typically with your school district or Community Center Board (CCB). Be persistent, and do not stop asking until you have some answers
  • Psychologist: if your child is struggling socially or refusing to interact with peers, it may be helpful to get a comprehensive psychological evaluation to see if a diagnosis underlies their challenges
  • Social skills groups: most suburban communities have social skills groups that may be helpful for your child. If you are not in an area with such access, there may be online resources available
  • Rec center classes: if you are in an area with a recreation center, check out their upcoming classes for kids. They may have an art class, gymnastics class, or swimming school your child could try. These activities tend to be a little easier socially because there is much less emphasis on social communication and most of the focus on the sport or activity at hand

Further Resources on Social Awkwardness in Childhood

[1] Lawrence Heller. Healing developmental trauma: How early trauma affects self-regulation, self-image, and the capacity for relationships. 

Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco

Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.

Berns, Roberta M. (2010). Child, family, school, community: Socialization and support.  

Mendler, Allen (2013). Teaching your students how to have a conversation.

Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.

UCLA PEERS Clinic https://www.semel.ucla.edu/peers

Giler, Janet Z. (2000). Socially ADDept: A manual for parents of children with ADHD and / or learning disabilities.

Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s.

Baker, Jed. (2006). Social skills picture book for high school and beyond. 

Baker, Jed. (Retrieved 2017). Social skills books and resources for ASD.

Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.

McConnell, Nancy & LoGuidice (1998). That’s Life! Social language.

Fein, Deborah (2011). “The Neuropsychology of Autism”

Children’s books on social skills

Brown, Laurie Krasny & Brown, Marc (2001). How to be a friend: A guide to making friends and keeping them (Dino life guides for families). 

Cook, Julia (2012). Making Friends is an art!: A children’s book on making friends (Happy to be, you and me). 

Cooper, Scott (2005). Speak up and get along!: Learn the mighty might, thought chop, and more tools to make friends, stop teasing, and feel good about yourself.

Meiners, Cheri. (2003). Understand and care.

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