5 “unwritten” social rules that some kids miss

By Lexi Walters Wright

At a glance

  • Social rules help guide how we interact with each other.

  • Lots of kids have trouble picking up on these rules.

  • You can help your child learn and practice social rules.

If you bump into someone, you usually say “excuse me” or “I’m sorry.” When someone is speaking, you don’t cut them off to say something.

More than likely, you learned these unwritten social rules when you were very young and quickly understood when and how to follow them. But some kids just don’t pick up on social rules or cues. They need extra help learning them.

Here are five social rules that can be challenging for kids — and tips to help your child understand and follow them.

Social rule #1: Meet and greet politely.

  • Say greetings, introductions, and goodbyes.
  • Politely offer and receive compliments.
  • Be able to start and finish conversations.

Social rule #2: Take turns talking.

  • Listen when others are speaking and look them in the eye.
  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Respond appropriately and at the right time.

Social rule #3: Pay attention to others.

  • Stop what you’re doing so you can listen.
  • Read people’s emotions through their body language and facial expressions.
  • Change your behavior to match what other people are doing, such as quieting down with the rest of the room.

Get tips on how to help your child understand body language and facial expressions.

Social rule #4: Think about others before acting.

  • Don’t touch without asking.
  • Don’t cut in line.
  • Wait your turn.
  • Stand a comfortable distance away when talking.

Explore ideas for teaching your child about personal space. And watch as an expert explains his technique for teaching kids about personal space — with a hula-hoop!

Social rule #5: Cooperate with others.

  • Follow directions when you’re asked to.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Apologize when necessary.
  • Be flexible and open to new ideas.

See a teen describe what it feels like to struggle with unwritten social rules.

How to help your child follow social rules

You can start by breaking down social rules in ways your child can understand and practice. Role-playing games are a good way to model behavior and help your child practice responding to different social situations. You can also use your child’s favorite TV shows to focus on reading body language and other social cues.

Be sure to praise your child for successful social interactions, too. Giving positive — and very specific — feedback can reinforce the behaviors you want your child to repeat. With practice and support, your child can get better at following social rules.

Are you unsure why your child is having a hard time with social rules? Understanding what’s behind your child’s trouble with social skills can help you find the best ways to help.

Key takeaways

  • Some kids need extra help learning and following social rules. 

  • Cooperating, taking turns, and practicing self-control are examples of social rules.

  • You can help your child work on social skills by using role-play and positive feedback.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Lexi Walters Wright is the former Community Manager at Understood. As a writer and editor, she helps parents make more informed choices for their children and for themselves.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Molly Algermissen, PhD is an associate professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center and clinical director of PROMISE.