Q: My 9-year-old son is a great kid: he’s kind, creative, and fun. But when he’s around other kids his age, he acts up. He’s usually trying to be funny, but he ends up annoying everyone. It breaks my heart to see other kids not wanting to play with him. How can I teach him to be calmer around peers?
Sometimes kids are their own worst enemy when it comes to friendship. This can be very frustrating and upsetting for parents to watch!
Resist the temptation to correct him in front of other kids. Research (and common sense) says that can hurt his reputation with peers. If needed, you can pull him aside to speak privately, but your best bet is to try to help him avoid doing things that bother his peers. Here are some ideas that could be useful to share with your son:
Choose kindness over humor
We all love being around people who make us laugh, but humor is very difficult to do well. It requires a sophisticated understanding of what people expect and how to counter those expectations without going to far. Kids who struggle socially rarely get this right. And, when attempts at humor are even just a little bit off, they’re not funny; they’re annoying.
Instead of trying to be funny, a safer bet is to try to be kind. It’s hard to mess up kindness. Try brainstorming with your son about acts of kindness he could do for classmates or other kids. Focus on helping, sharing, cooperating, and offering genuine compliments. For instance, he could let someone else go first, or tell someone, “Nice catch!” (You may need to warn him not to give away money or favorite possessions. Real friends can’t be bought.)
You may want to create a list of his acts of kindness each day. This could be accumulating evidence for a different view of himself.
Pay attention to stop signals
We all make social mistakes. That’s no big deal, as long as we notice that others aren’t reacting positively, and we stop. Kids who struggle socially often keep going with unwanted or bothersome actions because they don’t pick up on stop signals. For instance, they might continue to call a classmate an unwanted nickname, even after they’ve been asked to stop, because they think it’s funny. This can be infuriating for peers because it’s as if they’re saying, “I don’t care how you feel or what you want!”
You may want to help your child make a list of common stop signals. These could be comments along the lines of “Quit it!” or “You’re being annoying!” Sometimes stop signals are nonverbal, such as rolling eyes, looking away, or crossing arms and frowning.
When your child hears or sees one of these, it means he needs to stop right away. This can be difficult for some children. You might want to help him come up with a braking activity, such as sitting on his hands, crossing his arms and giving himself a little hug, moving a bit farther away, or even saying, “OK, I’ll stop now,”
Know how to join a group
Researchers have found that there’s a very specific sequence that kids use to join a group: Watch then blend. In other words, they need to watch what the other kids are doing, then slide into the action without interrupting the play. If your son tries to join a group by barging in and drawing attention to himself, that’s not going to go over well.
You may want to help your son develop these observation skills by sitting in your car or on a bench near a playground. Have your son look at different groups of kids, notice what they’re doing and say what he could do to join.
For instance, if kids are lining up to go down a slide, he could do the same. See if he can imagine how kids would react if he climbed up the front of the slide instead of standing in line at the back.
If kids are playing tag, he can watch to figure out who is it, then start running nearby.
If there’s an informal game of soccer or basketball, he could watch to see what’s going on, then wait for a break or maybe join the losing team. See if your son can explain why. (They’re more likely to be open to extra help.)
Looking around to see what other kids are doing can help your son figure out what is (to use Michelle Garcia Winner’s term) “expected behavior” in a particular situation. Doing unexpected behavior can make other people feel uncomfortable or even angry. Following the rules of a game and not cheating is an important part of expected behavior for kids your son’s age.
Find his people
Use your deep knowledge of your son to help him find other kids like him. Think about what he enjoys doing that he could do with other kids. In the right group or with the right activity, his energy and silliness could be constructively channeled and/or warmly embraced.
Build up individual friendships
Sometimes kids act up around groups of kids because they feel anxious and uncomfortable. It may help to have your son concentrate on having one-on-one playdates to build up friendships with individual kids. This is often easier than dealing with a whole group. It could also make group settings more manageable, if he sees the group made up of at least some kids who know and like him. If he feels more comfortable and connected, he may also feel less need to act in ways that annoy his peers.