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Play Date Tips for a Child with Social Struggles

One of the biggest challenges of parenting children with social struggles is worrying that they'll be socially isolated. You know that your child has a huge heart, a silly side and a lot of interesting ideas, but will the other kids in her class realize that? Organizing small, controlled play dates is the perfect way for your child to build social skills, make new friends and enjoy all the fun of childhood.

Find the Perfect Match

If your child doesn't already have close buddies to invite over, you might have to do a little matchmaking. Talk to your child's teachers about which kids play well with yours. Another option is to connect with local groups for parents of special needs kids and ask around to find kids whose personalities and challenges are complementary to your child's. (For instance, if your child has behavioral issues, you might want to find a playmate who is even-keeled and not easily intimidated by meltdowns.)

Prep Your Child

If your child doesn't have much experience with playing with other children outside of school, advance prep is especially important. Having other kids come into his home feels different than playing together at school, so it's helpful to talk through what might happen. Try a practice run the day before the play date. You might say something like, "Taylor is coming over to play tomorrow! Let's think about how you guys might play together. Pretend that I'm Taylor and I just got here to play. What will you say?"

Run through an entire pretend play date from start to finish. Act out a few of the challenges that might arise. For instance, if your child wants to build with blocks, you might insist on playing outdoors instead. Take occasional breaks to model the right behavior. Say things like, "Okay, I'm going to be Mom for a minute now. I saw you were getting really angry when Taylor didn't want to do art. Maybe if that happened you could agree to play outside for 10 minutes, then come inside and paint?"

Prep the Other Parents

Depending on how well you know the other child and her family, you may need to talk to the other parents about your child's challenges first. For instance, you might let them know that your child sometimes hides when other kids come over or that she yells when she gets angry, so they can prepare their child for this possibility. Assure them that you'll always be close by to supervise.

Organize Flexible Activities

You know better than anyone that kids with higher needs can be unpredictable. Make a plan B (and plan C and D) in case your play date plan A doesn't work. Prepare a variety of activities that your child will enjoy so you can pivot to something new at any moment. Be ready to pull out solo activities, like coloring books and other art projects, that the kids can do separately for a while if cooperating is a challenge.

Supervise (But Don't Lurk)

For your child, an important part of having a friend come over for a play date is learning to navigate social challenges independently. It does him no favors if you come sweeping in to settle every disagreement — but you should be able to reach the kids within seconds if anyone gets physically aggressive. Position yourself nearby, and if you notice the signs that your child is getting overwhelmed or angry, pull him aside for a five-minute calming break.

Celebrate the Wins

After the play date, celebrate everything that went well. Tell your child what she did that made you proud, and ask what she thought about how it went. Even if was rough, share a special treat as a way to acknowledge that your child tried something new and difficult.

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