At a glance
Tweens who learn and think differently often need to practice social habits and cues.
Parents and caregivers can help by role-playing common social situations.
With some social prep, your tween will be able to navigate daily interactions more easily.
All tweens want is to fit in with their peers. But following basic social rules can be tough for some kids who learn and think differently. You can help your middle-schooler build social skills and feel more prepared to work with others by role-playing these common situations.
Giving someone a compliment
Giving a genuine compliment can be harder than it seems. Explain that a compliment is saying something nice about what a friend takes pride in or wants other people to notice. Demonstrate by asking your child which is more meaningful: “It’s great that you like to eat eggs,” or “You’re a really good soccer player.”
Your middle-schooler can rehearse giving compliments to you first. But it helps to look for compliments or opportunities for them in other social situations, too. For instance, if you’re watching TV together, ask your tween to point out sincere and insincere compliments. While reading a book, notice how the characters talk to each other. Are they nice or mean? Acting fake or being genuine?
Accepting a peer’s criticism
Accepting criticism, or hearing what they did wrong or could do better, is tough for many kids who learn and think differently. It can also be difficult to understand that there’s a difference between being put down and being given helpful, constructive feedback. Explain to your child that hearing people out while staying calm and collected is an important friendship skill.
Teach tweens to use “placeholder” words like “uh-huh” and “OK” while listening. Then, practice reflecting back on what they've heard and asking for clarification. “OK, I play too rough on the basketball court. Is that hurting my game or is it bugging the rest of the team?”
Dealing with clique behavior
Tweens can have trouble finding a group of kids they fit in with. Those who have weak social skills and low self-esteem may have a tough time handling clique behavior. Help your child understand that when cliques exclude and tease people, they’re looking for a reaction. In this case, sometimes the best response is no response.
Practice some simple ways to defuse situations calmly, like saying, “That’s OK, I can sit somewhere else.” Most importantly, tweens need to know that if they’re feeling bullied instead of teased, they can always talk to a parent, caregiver, teacher, or coach.
Doing something fun after school
There are plenty of ways for tweens to explore their strengths and passions after school. But getting involved in a game or activity that’s already in progress can be hard for kids who have trouble reading social situations. Role-playing how to join the group can help.
Enlist the family in doing an activity your child has to join. Board games, charades, or craft projects work well. Practice introductions (“Hi, my name is Beth and I’d like to join the game”) and asking questions about the activity (“How many players are allowed?”). Your tween can also work on being tolerant of other people’s ideas and taking turns in conversation.
Starting a conversation with a friend
Starting conversations, keeping them going, and knowing how to end them can be hard for tweens. Prepare some conversation starters in advance. Have your child rehearse with you. Examples might include commenting on the activity you’re involved in (“What are you playing?”) or asking a question about a common interest (“Do you like the new cafeteria food?”).
Brainstorm appropriate things to say to peers, then role-play different responses. You can help your child practice social rules like not standing too close when talking. Work on developing eye contact and appropriate facial expressions, such as smiling when someone is trying to be funny and nodding when someone is making a point. Give your tween simple ways to end a conversation, like saying “Thanks,” “See you later,” or “Nice talking to you.”
Working in a group
Working in a group can be hard, especially for kids who have a tough time understanding other people’s point of view or struggle with social cues. Help your child learn to work with others by acting out the various situations and breaking them down, including disagreements among group members.
Your tween can practice saying things like, “Let’s look at the pros and cons of each idea,” or “Here’s why I think this will work.”
Listening to other people
Holding back on what they want to say can be hard for tweens. Kids who have attention issues or trouble with working memory may interrupt because they’re afraid they’ll lose their train of thought. You can give tweens tricks to remember their last thought. These can include keeping “code words” in mind, jotting down a quick note, or even sending themselves a text.
Practice fast-paced conversations with your middle-schooler. For example, what’s the best way to introduce new ideas? What about: “I like what you said. You know what it made me think of?”
Making plans with friends
Getting together with friends is fun, but it may be hard to settle on an actual plan. Often, tweens get stuck on what they want to do and have a hard time compromising. Here, it’s helpful to brainstorm a variety of things your middle-schooler likes to do. Then, practice conversations that go easily and ones that don’t.
For example, if your child says, “Hey, let’s go to the movies,” you can answer “Sure,” or “Nah, I don’t want to go the movies.” Teach your child ways to counter-offer. “OK, what do you want to do? I also like to…” or “Maybe we can do that and go to the movies another time.”
Role-playing common middle-schooler experiences, like giving a compliment, is helpful for tweens who struggle socially.
Act out all the social scenarios and how they might go, both the good and the bad.
Your tween should first practice with you to get more comfortable with social cues and rules.
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.
Jim Rein, MA has lectured on postsecondary options and summer programs for kids and young adults with learning and thinking differences.