When parents talk about improving their children’s social skills, they’re usually referring to skills in interacting with same-aged children. But truly socially-adjusted kids are those who are not only comfortable dealing with peers, but are also comfortable dealing with older children and adults too.
But what if your child refuses to speak to adults or strangers? Consider the following tips:
Who is a Stranger?
It is appropriate for children to be wary of strangers and there is certainly no need for them to interact with complete strangers when they are alone. However, kids have to know how to approach even a total stranger for help when help is needed – i.e. someone has been injured or lost or is otherwise in trouble. It’s not practical to tell a child to find a police officer since police officers aren’t always handy; sometimes the child will have to ask a regular adult for assistance. Advising children to search out a sales clerk in a store or a mother with children may be a good opening strategy. If neither is available, however, children should be advised to look for other outer signs of respectability in a strange adult – type of clothing, companions and other “safety features.” Don’t assume that your child knows all these things – take time to give examples and spell out details. When out and about, point out the kind of people that seem most trustworthy for emergency-only interactions, as well as the kind of people you feel it would be best to avoid if possible. While providing this education, make sure to point out that almost all people are kind to children and most strangers are very normal, respectful people. Moreover, let your children know that just because someone wears a nice suit doesn’t mean that he is a good person and just because someone has an unusual hair style doesn’t mean that he is dangerous. Looking for conservative appearance is only one small step a child can take toward ensuring his or her safety.
Apart from life-and-death issues and other safety concerns, kids should be encouraged to talk to adults when they are with you or other caregivers. Naturally shy children will need your help in developing social skills. Explain exactly what you want them to do – i.e. smile, say “hello” and possibly shake hands. Offer generous positive feedback when your child makes efforts to behave appropriately and avoid criticism. Speaking to adults on the phone can be part of the training process. Take time to teach the skills: use a pleasant tone of voice, say “hello,” and “one moment please” or ask the person “could you please hold on?” and so on. Be patient with your youngster, allowing him or her to build up confidence and skill through practice over time.
Is Your Child Feeling Intimidated by Adults?
A child whose teachers and parents are low-key, warm, friendly people tends to have less fear of adults than one whose teachers and parents tend to be strict disciplinarians. If your child is overly intimidated by adults, it could be that he or she is just very timid by nature but it might also be that you have accidentally (or purposely!) instilled a little too much fear. Keep in mind that kids turn out healthiest when they are raised by warm, loving parents who impose a comfortable amount of structure and rules. Following the 80-20 Rule as described in the book Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice will achieve the desired effect.
Does Your Child Need Time to Warm Up?
You can’t just introduce your child to a stranger and then expect him or her to immediately jump into conversation. Kids usually like to feel their way into a conversation, making tentative remarks and openings that can eventually lead down a fruitful path. Moreover, it’s important not to push a child to speak when he or she clearly feels uncomfortable. If a child holds onto your skirts, let him for the time being but make a note to practice social skills (see above) later. Do not mock or criticize your child for the way he or she acts around people. If your child tends to be shy during the first hello, be patient. Establishing rapport takes time; allow your child to go at his own pace. Say nothing at the time – and be particularly careful not to comment on his or her quiet behavior IN FRONT of another person – and then provide help later.
Child Refuses to Talk to Adults at All
There are some children who simply won’t talk to adults outside their immediate family members. This can include their teachers, doctors, neighbors and others. They might be suffering from Selective Mutism, a psychological disorder in which a child is capable of speaking but absolutely refuses to do so.
Children with selective mutism may speak to other children but refuse to speak to adults or, in some cases, refuse to speak to certain kinds of adults (like men or people in positions of authority). Sometimes kids refuse to speak in public (i.e. school or other areas outside the home) to both children and adults. For instance a child with Selective Mutism in the classroom may not speak at all to her friend, but if that same friend is invited to her house for a play-date, she will speak to her completely normally.
Selective Mutism is diagnosed and treated by speech and language pathologists and mental health professionals. If you believe your child may have Selective Mutism, do consult a speech and language pathologist or child psychologist with experience in assessing and treating Selective Mutism (you can ask your pediatrician for a referral).