Tuesday, February 4, 2014

When Your Child Struggles Socially

When I was in the seventh grade, I told a big whopping lie at school so that the smart and popular girl would like me and think we had something in common.

It worked for a while...until a family night where her mom happened to talk to my dad and my lie was exposed in the worst way.

In. Front. Of. Everyone.

Traumatizing for me at the time but not unlike any story we hear of kids and teens today. The social scene is a landmine of challenges for kids and it can be hard for parents to navigate or know how to respond and teach without shaming or blaming.

I got lucky.  My dad was graceful and let me leave, knowing that exposure was a natural consequence and I'd still have to pay the price even more when I returned to school.  I was too besieged by my own embarrassment at the time to think about it but he was probably pretty embarrassed, himself. My lie didn't make me, or my family, shine particularly bright.

You've probably been in my dad's shoes on more than one occasion...watching your child struggle through an awkward moment. Maybe your child is hanging out with kids who don't even talk to him or her.  Maybe your kid helps everyone with their homework but never gets invited for fun activities. Your child may talk out of turn or be ignorant of social cues. 

In the moment, sitting on the sidelines while you watch your child struggle socially probably feels like you are in a free-falling plane.  The oxygen masks are down and your challenge is to put one on yourself before putting one on your child.  There's a reason for that. You need to be calm in order to help your child and you can't help if you're not breathing or are hyperventilating.

The darnedest thing seems to happen to you when you see your child is struggling socially.  You move from observing a tough moment to envisioning a worst case scenario where you fear that your child won't have any friends and will become an outcast. In this bully-awareness age, you worry your child will be bullied or will be seen as one.  As much as you teach your child not to worry about what others think, all you start to do is worry about what others think of your child!

If you try to problem solve or create a teachable moment while you are reacting, you are setting yourself and your child up for an anxious response.  It's best to calm down and assess.  Is this troubling moment a pattern for your child?  Is it new?  What do you think your child is trying to accomplish with his or her behavior?  Is there a social skill or cue that your child may need help with? Try to separate your fear from what is really going on.

Once you've calmed down a bit, ask your child about it. Say something like, "I noticed the other day that_____ and I was wondering if_______" You may have just misinterpreted something.   Try to get a sense of what your child was thinking and what he/she was aware of during the interaction.  Try, too, to get a sense of what they were hoping for.            

Explain your intent.  Clarify that you are on your child's side.  A supportive statement like "I know what it's like to want to be popular"  helps you connect with your child on his/her intent. More than anything, kids just want to feel understood and heard.

Ask for permission to problem solve.  Us adults do lousy with unsolicited advice. We're all just grown-up kids so it makes sense that kids will struggle with receiving it, too.  If your child turns you down, accept this and explain that you understand.  It's also ok for you to explain your worry if something doesn't change.  You can say something like "I am sure you don't want your mom or dad butting in to your social life.  It's just that I know you have a lot of great ideas and you're a great leader.  I don't want other kids to misunderstand that and think you're being controlling."

Be careful with orchestrating social scenarios where your child can be successful.  Sometimes well intentioned parents take it upon themselves to help their kids socially by arranging play dates, social activities, or talking to parents of other kids involved.  This is such a slippery slope as kids need the opportunity to figure relationships out on their own.  They have to live with and survive their own mistakes.  If they don't feel that natural consequence, they'll never learn.

Sure, my junior high self really wished my father would have just gone along with my lie.  Truth be told, there's a part of my adult self today that wishes he had, too.  That was an awful night with my heart thudding in my ears for hours and lots of crying in the bathroom the next day.

However, I never lied to make friends again.  I never pretended to be something I wasn't and even though I took the long way, I came to like myself more. 

Parents, it's so hard to give up control and to not problem solve.  However, if you keep the dialogue open and share your thoughts with your child, he or she will be better equipped to deal with uncomfortable social situations independently. It's the dialogue that creates the teachable moment.  It's your acceptance of their feelings about things that helps them sort things out.  They can stop worrying about what you think or what you're going to do and they can get clear about what they think and what they'd like to do.

I know you were probably hoping for some kind of plan or response where you could swoop in like a superhero and spare your child pain and awkwardness.  Unfortunately, kids can't escape those times and they shouldn't be able to.  It's in their response that they begin to learn not only who they are, but who their friends are, too.

Until next time,

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