My Son’s Social Skills Need Improvement

Q: My 10-year-old son is severely lacking in social skills. It’s very difficult to point this out to him and show him where he goes wrong. When I describe ways that he might be hurting other people’s feelings, he becomes very defensive and blames the other boy for being “mean.” He also has some reading difficulties, and this causes him embarrassment. Unfortunately, there are other family problems as well, and he is self-conscious about those, too.

His Rebbi and the counselor he sees in yeshivah met with my son and me this past week to discuss these issues with him, but my son really didn’t seem to understand what they were telling him. Instead, he started talking about buying things for his classmates to help “win friends.”

The Rebbi spoke of my son’s need to think before he speaks, but I’m not sure if my son honestly realizes that what he says is such a problem. He doesn’t understand that when he says to a classmate, “I don’t believe that you don’t understand the math; it’s so simple,” that he sounds condescending and conceited.

He’s also not aware that when he “spaces out” while talking to peers, they think that he is not interested in them. He exaggerates the truth, hoping that his classmates will respect him more, but the opposite happens; the Rebbi said that the boys in his class generally don’t believe him anymore when he tells stories.

Another way his problem manifests itself is that my son doesn’t know when to compromise with others, like when playing during recess — he’s too afraid that others will take advantage of him. The school counselor told me that when he asked my son to name some positive attributes of any of his classmates, he couldn’t think of one! The Rebbi is open to helping my son; can you advise how he could do this?

A: It is very commendable that your son’s Rebbi shows such concern and wants to help your son with his social limitations. He can truly be an excellent conduit in helping to guide your son in this area. He’s in a perfect position to observe inappropriate social responses first hand and point them out to your son — in a thought-out, sensitive manner, of course.

By using the “cushion method,” the Rebbi can start with giving the benefit of the doubt to your son by saying: “I’m sure that you weren’t aware, but…” He can also say, “I’m sure you meant nothing by it, but…” Then he can point out the social faux pas that your son has inadvertently made.

The second verbal “cushion” is then expressed (to ease the discomfort of being criticized), with a comment such as, “I’m sure that you’ll be more aware in the future.”

Your son needs to be agreeable to such an arrangement, and hopefully he will be after its advantages are explained to him.

In general, the most common defensive response is an offensive one — blaming the other person. Since your son seems to feel second-class in terms of his learning and home situation, it is understandable that he doesn’t want to feel second-class in another area and thus blames others.

You can help the situation by attempting to build your son’s (and your family’s) self-esteem, as often described in these parenting columns. In this way, he will have less of a need to exaggerate stories, or to criticize peers, to elevate his own status.

With regard to being a role model, it would be very helpful for you to continually point out positive character traits of others — consciously. You can give examples, without mentioning names, of how, in the past, you occasionally judged others incorrectly and later found out you were totally wrong. You can emphasize how psychologically healthy it is to give others the benefit of the doubt.

Siblings can share an Ahavas Yisrael chart, verbally pointing out the good in others and receiving rewards for doing so. B’hatzlachah!