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The Social Lives of Children: How Parents Can Help
The Social Lives of Children: How Parents Can Help
Mar 24, 2011
Has this ever happened to you? Your child comes home from school and informs you that he has had the worst day of his life. Another child was mean to him and he tells you the specifics. No one played with him, and he hates school and never wants to go back. Your first instinct is to protect him. You can hardly go around yelling at or smacking the kid you deem to be the perpetrator, but part of you wishes you could. Your second instinct is to offer suggestions and come up with solutions…anything to take the sting away from this painful moment. In the end, your child, having dumped this information on you, seems to go on about his merry way, while you are left feeling helpless and anxious.
There is probably no other area where parents can so intensely feel the pain of their children than in the social area…and no other area in which we feel so powerless to help them. All of us have experienced rejection by an individual or by a group. It goes along with the territory of childhood. And our own memories actually impede our ability to find perspective and to help. We don’t go to school with them. We only have glimpses of them in a group setting. And if we hear that they were teased, ignored or not invited to a birthday party, we experience a mixture of anger and pain.
Michael Thompson, author of Best Friends, Worst Enemies, and my favorite expert on the subject of children’s friendships, reminds us that “being a parent means feeling helpless a lot of the time.” And although we are not able to live our children’s social lives for them, there are some things parents can do to help mitigate the hurt for children and themselves.
Here are ten guidelines that you can use:
1) Have some faith in the developmental process.
Most children really do figure out how to get along with people and have friends. Thompson reminds us that the kind of social person your child will turn out to be can not be predicted at age 4 or even 14. As he grows older, he will amass a huge set of social experiences and all of these will be learning situations for him. He doesn’t have to have it figured out now. Even those kids who experience serious social setbacks can learn from these and grow into socially confident adults.
2) Reflect a positive, resilient attitude toward social setbacks.
Children do suffer when they are teased or rejected and parents tend to suffer right along with them. But our job is to tolerate that pain, put it in perspective, know that it is part of the normal territory of childhood, and help our children learn that they can recover. So instead of responding negatively and with a great deal of worry, remind yourself that your child is resilient. She can pull through this experience (and so can you!)
3) .Empathize with your child’s social pain, but keep it in perspective.
I actually believe that parents feel the pain more than kids do! Children are motivated to reconcile with their friends, and tend to bounce back from these setbacks sooner than we do, leaving us holding the bag of worry and upset feelings. Usually, old memories from when we were children are getting in the way. Social pain happens. Social pain passes. It helps to remember this.
4) Have reasonable expectations about your child’s social skills.
Preschoolers who are just learning social skills will have a hard time sharing. School age children will brag and put down others in order to feel confident and competent. A child doesn’t have to have a best friend. A child can enjoy long hours playing alone and still be a friend. Shy, bossy, aggressive and impulsive kids can all have friends and find their way to cooperative interactions. Expect your child, at some point in his or her life, to be both rejected and a rejecter.
5) In the words of Michael Thompson, interview for coping instead of pain.
A typical experience when our child comes home and complains about a difficult social interaction, is to make excessive comments and ask questions designed to feel his pain and help solve it. This can backfire. As my son once told me, “When you tell me what I should do, you make me feel incompetent.” Instead, empathize (“Wow, that felt crummy.”), and then ask him what he did to handle the situation, compliment the effort, and let him know that you are available if he wants to strategize.
6) Make friends with the parent’s of your child’s friends and with their enemies.
This can be very helpful when your children have social struggles. When children are older, you can collaborate and set rules together and be on the same page.
7) Note that there's a big difference between being a friend and being in a social group.
Most children enjoy the wonderful experience of having a reciprocal, one on one, friendship. Friendships are often safe places for kids, while the social group can live by norms that are not often the best fit for each child. Learning to be a member of group takes specific social skills which have to be amassed through trial and error over time. If your child is struggling with group dynamics, remind yourself that she still has the skill of being a friend. In the end, if we look at our adult relationships, this is what counts.
8) Help your children develop a sense of empowerment and empathy to deal with social interactions.
If your child comes home and tells you that that he was teased or bullied, instead of focusing on the victimization, ask him, “How did do you think he got the power to do that? What gives him so much power?” Encourage him to find solutions, rather than telling him what to do. If your child is the aggressor, talk with her about the impact her behavior has on others. Help her see that her behavior has consequences for others in the way they feel about themselves and her. Ask her what she can do to make it up to them. It can also help to role play these situations.
9) Support children’s friendships by giving them opportunities to be with peers.
I have worked with many a socially shy parent who was determined to overcome this reticence, in order to meet the needs of their children. Encourage play dates, at the park or at your house. Remember that the one-on-one friendship experience can really solidify a child’s experience of being socially successful, when groups can feel a bit overwhelming.
10) Determine if your child is at risk.
If you have child who is continually bullied or is a bully, consult with teachers, counselors, and get some help in figuring out if this is normal social pain, or something more worrisome. There are also some wonderful books out there. I recommend Michael Thompson’s Mom, They’re Teasing Me: Helping your Child Solve Social Problems, and Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children.