Everyone has social challenges – even adults! It’s not surprising then, that kids have plenty of social issues. Sometimes they fight with others, sometimes others fight with them. Sometimes they are bullied. Sometimes they are rejected. Often, they experience some kind of shyness, insecurity or even social anxiety. Kids form cliques; there’s the in-crowd and the out-crowd. There’s peer pressure to contend with. The challenges are endless! Parents often worry about their kids, naturally wishing to save them from the pain that can be caused by social problems. When should parents step in? When should they stay back?
If you’re not sure whether or not to get involved in your child’s social life, consider the following tips:
Consider Whether or Your Child Does or Does Not NEED Your Help
Saving your child from pain is not the only consideration you should have. Keep in mind that a little pain is tolerable for children and it might even be a useful source of learning and positive development. Instead of rushing to rescue your child from a difficult social situation, ask yourself whether or not your child is able to rescue him or herself. How old is your youngster? Two year olds usually have limited resources. If a bigger child is teasing them or – worse – hurting them, they are sure to need adult intervention. On the other hand, if another two year old is not being nice to them, it is possible that they can find ways to defend themselves or solve the problem on their own (i.e. move away or frighten the offender). Similarly, older kids can usually learn to handle everyday difficulties perpetrated by their same-age peers. Being bullied, however, is a different story. When there is a serious emotional or physical threat, adults usually do need to step in.
If you feel that your child lacks the skills to solve a social problem, it’s preferable to provide the skills rather than to solve the problem for her. For instance, suppose your 10 year-old daughter is the only girl in the class who has not been invited to a classmate’s sleepover party. Your child is devastated. You might be tempted to call the classmate’s mother and let her know how your daughter feels. However, why not help your daughter to tackle the problem herself? She can either speak to the girl directly or write a brief note. For instance, “Dear Sue, I know that you are having a sleepover party and have invited everyone in the class except me. I know that you and I are not really friends, but I don’t think we are enemies either. If I had a party, I would invite you if I was inviting everyone else. I know you are a good person and you would never purposely hurt anybody. I’m sure you did not realize how much this would embarrass me and hurt my feelings. I haven’t spoken to anyone about it. I am wondering if you could change your mind and invite me to the party. I would be happy to bring some snacks along for all the girls and I would really be so grateful to you for including me. Sincerely, Tanya.” If “Sue” doesn’t change her mind, then you would help your child come to terms with the fact that there are mean people in the world. You would help her to learn from this how important it is to include everyone.
Helping your child find a way to deal with a social challenge is appropriate when your child has the necessary communication skills (like the ability to write a short letter). A younger child will need more of your help and often, more parent-to-parent intervention. A teenager can almost always be taught what to do and do it by him or herself.
Choosing Your Child’s Friends
Children choose their own friends. However, parents can make introductions. Parents often move into a specific neighborhood or choose a specific school in order to provide certain kinds of friends for their kids. Parents may also make play-dates for toddlers, preschoolers and other very young children. However, children decide who they like and don’t like. This poses a challenge for parents as the kids get older. Some children choose friends that their parents don’t approve of. Sometimes, parents feel that a particular child is having a bad influence on their own child. In such cases, parents often attempt to discourage the friendships in one way or another – sometimes even forbidding associations out of school. The problem with this approach is that forbidden relationships are all the more tempting. Moreover, it’s not the child’s fault that he or she is drawn to the wrong crowd. Preferences for people are made at the subconscious level; something draws a child to another person or group of people. If you think that your child is making poor choices, try to help your child’s inner world. The healthier a child is psychologically, the healthier choices he or she will make in friends. To bolster your child’s psychological health, make sure you follow the 80-20 Rule (See Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe) – or the 90-10 Rule for teens. This ratio ensures that you have a positive, warm, loving relationship with your child and this is very conducive for your child’s emotional health. Reduce anger and criticism to nearly zero! The more your child likes you and identifies with you, the more he or she will choose friends that YOU would approve of. If you feel that you must forbid a particular social connection, then make sure you explain exactly why to your child. Make sure that your child experiences your love, rather than your controlling side. For instance, instead of “I absolutely forbid you to see Terry again.” try, “I know how much you enjoy being with Terry. However, I have to ask you not to spend any more time with Terry because you are learning things that can get you into serious trouble. I feel that I have to help you stay away from this person and if I find that you are spending time with Terry, you and I will have to talk about negative consequences. I hope that you know how much I love you and I hope that by now, you trust my judgment.” When you have a good relationship with your child (which is why the 80-20 Rule is vital), you have much more power to influence your child’s choices.
If Your Child Mismanages Friendships
Sometimes you may feel that your child is mishandling a social relationship. You want him or her to strengthen a friendship but your child seems to be careless, not bothering to treat the friend properly. You worry that the child will lose the friend; perhaps you even lose sleep over it. It’s fine for parents to offer their child information. For instance, go ahead and talk to your child about how friendships are built and maintained. Explain your concerns about his or her current behavior. However, be mindful not to repeat yourself. Assume that your child heard you the first time! If your child does not choose to heed you advice and, as a consequence, loses the friendship, he or she will know better for next time. No matter who this friend is, he or she is NOT the only human left on the planet. Your child can make other friends. Even if this particular person was an excellent kid, the best you could hope for in a child’s friend, keep in mind that there are other good kids out there. You simply cannot control your child to the extent that you run his or her social life. Instead of trying to do so, give your “normal” child credit where credit is due: he or she can learn to build relationships in his or her own good time.
Sometimes, parents find themselves worrying far into the night about their child’s friends and relationships. In this case, professional consultation might help to determine whether there really is something to worry about and if so what sort of interventions and strategies might be helpful.