Signs & Symptoms

Social Motivation

Is your child wanting to engage socially but not sure how?

As a parent, do you worry about your child’s social connections? Does it seem like he or she did just fine in kindergarten but in upper grades things are different?

Perhaps social connections seem more immature than what you’ve noticed with other children. Maybe as your child reaches middle school there is not the depth to friendship, and everyone feels like an acquaintance. Your child may say “I have so many friends” or he or she may say “I don’t want any” but either way you worry about those connections.

Social motivation is different than social savvy. Social motivation means that the child cares about making friends, but this motivation does not necessarily indicate social success.

Social Development: During typical social development, we want to see children coming up with what to say to others easily, knowing how to start a conversation, how to keep an interaction going, and how to politely end the exchange.

They also have to understand social rules; they have to know when to be a leader and when to follow. Children should know what actions are “too much,” too physical, or taking it too far. Some children appear to follow others all the time, to stand on the sidelines and never engage in a leadership role, while others are bossy and too controlling.

By grade school, we should see children understanding social relationships, knowing what to say to a peer, and recognizing deeper interests and areas to connect.

A child should not simply talk about one interest or get stuck on a topic without being able to shift to something else. A bright pre-teen or teen should not appear puzzled by the question “What do you do for fun?” Children should be able to respond to open ended questions with a variety of responses.

Lacking social motivation: Children who are lacking motivation tend to stand out. You may see them isolating themselves with a book at every recess or droning on endlessly on a topic like Star Wars or law enforcement, seeming unaware that their ‘listening audience’ lost interest long ago.

Social motivation is a critical first step in social development. Kids have to care in order to even begin to make friends. To be successful socially, they have to learn how to identify who good friends could be, find friends with common interests, and skillfully join a group of children who are playing together.

What do challenges with Social Motivation look like?

  • Choosing isolating topics and interests like solitary computer games or obscure facts?
  • Always having his or her nose in a book?
  • Appearing to be in his or her own world that’s perhaps layered in fantasy?
  • Writing fan fiction so much that you wonder about a break from reality?
  • Wanting to engage with others but having no idea what to say?
  • Only responding in conversation after a long awkward pause?
  • Wondering what is the purpose of having friends and unsure whether he or she wants friends?
  • Isolated now, but before 3rd grade he or she had lots of friends?
  • Interested in having friends or not but either way seeming unaware; appearing socially awkward in conversation and interaction with peers?

Why is Social Motivation happening?

  • Social motivation is the desire to connect with others and form friendships with them. People who are socially motivated tend to join groups and activities with others easily. They might ask a friend to play with them or quickly jump into a game of basketball.

    Social motivation includes:

    • a desire to connect
    • enjoying time around other children
    • trying to engage with other children
    • enjoying social settings and activities 
    • attempting conversation with others

    Shy people are nervous when meeting new people but then will approach peers once they are more familiar and comfortable. Introverted people may not ‘get their energy’ from others and need time to ‘recharge’ after being around people for long. Shyness and introversion are just fine so long as the individual is ultimately able to pursue friendships and make connections with others. Social motivation is a concern when the person continuously stays away from people and is unable to make and keep friends as a result.

How can I manage Social Motivation at home?

For the child who wants to engage:

Strategies at home: Practice with your child. Set up playdates or activities with a clear structure to relieve some of the unknown.

A playdate at the zoo, the pool or at an arts and crafts center provides an expected structure, while going to a friend’s house leaves lots of unstructured time and questions like “What should we do next?” Unstructured activities are more likely to lead to argument or disagreement.

If your child struggles socially, you want to first build confidence in social scenarios that you can practice or talk about before. At the zoo, kids can take turns deciding what animals to see next. These opportunities to take turns and compromise and conversation topics are obvious.

Practice conversation for the playdate depending on the plan. If it is the zoo, talk about favorite animals, comment on what animals are doing and learn about animals’ behaviors and habitats.

If the playdate is for arts and crafts, practice positive comments like, “I love the color of your tree” or “cool clay house.” Practice by asking questions like, “what are you going to draw next?”

Asking questions can be a great thing for a socially motivated child to learn. When a long pause occurs, ask a question of the other person and listen to the answer.

With older children, help plan the text message, call or email to set up a playdate or activity, giving him or her more ownership of the plans.

Finally, be sure you are choosing a good peer to spend time with. Choose someone your child likes, who has similar interests and is kind and friendly. Not all socially motivated children can read their peers well, and some may choose peers who would not make great friends.

Children who struggle socially need a lot of practice in these social settings. It is relatively easy to get the socially motivated child to agree to an activity or playdate or party. Take advantage of this and plan something weekly, more often in the summer. Practicing social skills is the way to improve them.

Additionally, consider a social skills group that is clinician led with similarly aged children who have similarly developed intellectual abilities. These groups are another form of practice that can be very helpful for the motivated child who is failing socially.

For the child who does not want to engage:

This process is a bit harder because some children reject social opportunities. It will be important to try to understand if your child’s perspective comes from a history of rejection, a lack of skills, or very restricted interests. Try to understand why he or she does not see the need to engage in socially.

Consider the following strategies when you choose social activities to plan:

Be strategic in planning the social activities. Plan things that are highly motivating because of the activity.

Pick a peer who you know your child is comfortable being around. Go to the science museum to learn about outer space, join a Minecraft camp for a week in the summer, go to the lake if your child loves to swim.

Make the activity motivating, and help your child build success in relationships with other children who also like the same things. Build skills the way we discussed above, but be selective in the type of activities. Initially, stay away from busy picnics or birthday parties that might make your child feel miserable.

Thinking about the reasons why: Poor social skills (whether motivated or not) can be a sign of a disability such as Autism. If you suspect your child may have a disability, it is worthwhile to get an evaluation and to pursue associated therapies.

Autism: Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders may or may not be socially motivated and are likely to be socially awkward. When evaluated through tasks on the ADOS-2, a child may fail to let another person get in a word.

He may give a lecture about air conditioners or tell you every detail about his fish. When you say in turn “Oh, I have some pets,” this statement is met with no response, a change of subject or an awkward “(long pause) Oh.”

Nothing to Say. Another child may look at the examiner and smile pleasantly but have no response to “What do you like to do during the summer?” or “What’s your favorite____?” The open-ended question can be daunting, and some motivated children just don’t know how to respond.

Reading Nonverbal Cues. Children with Autism tend to have challenges with conversation because taking others’ perspectives is challenging [1]. It is also hard to read other people when you are not paying attention to their nonverbal cues.

Often, children with ASD don’t make well-coordinated eye contact, so they aren’t looking to see how the conversation partner is responding nonverbally. They don’t know when the partner is expecting a response or when he or she is moving on to something else [1].

All About Facts. Also, children with ASD tend to have restricted interests. They really enjoy talking about a certain subject, which may quickly bore another child who doesn’t share that interest. They struggle with open-ended tasks and ideas, which makes sharing facts a lot easier than reciprocal conversation.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Social Motivation?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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