By Nara Schoenberg, Tribune Newspapers
July 31, 2012
The first day of school is approaching, and with it, play dates, parties, recess and high-stakes lunches in overheated cafeterias.
Can you help your child make friends and navigate the K-12 social scene?
And even if you can help, should you?
"The answer is yes and no," says Michael J. Bradley, author of "When Things Get Crazy With Your Teen" (McGraw-Hill).
"Parents should get involved in helping their child learn about the concept of popularity and friends. They should not get involved in making those things happen — the old helicopter parent thing. If you jump in and fix it there is zero learning on the part of the child."
The advice you'll get will depend, to some extent, on the age of the child and the degree of the problem, but, in general, the three experts we interviewed agreed that parents have a valuable role to play when a child faces a social challenge: You can listen, ask questions and sympathize. You can help your kid understand what's going on and put it in perspective. And you can help her figure out what she wants to do.
But stepping in and actively managing your child's social life isn't likely to help, experts say, and it can easily backfire.
"It's important to recognize what your sphere of influence is, as opposed to your sphere of concern," says Kim John Payne, author of "Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids" (Ballantine).
"Don't act on your sphere of concern, because that's a fast track to a very unhappy parent and a fast track to a parent who's going to annoy a lot of other parents."
We asked Payne, Bradley and Shannon Trice-Black, assistant professor of counselor education at the College of William & Mary, to offer advice for parents facing three common scenarios.
The lonely first-grader
The scenario: Your child sometimes joins in at recess, but she's not getting invited on play dates and she feels excluded: "No one wants to be my friend."
The response: Ask some basic questions about what's going on — Why do you feel that way? Are there kids who do have a lot of friends? What do they do? Listen carefully.
"Just become a big heart with ears, just be there," Payne says. "When your child's little heart is hurting because they're not being included, include them yourself."
Don't contradict what your kid says; even if she has lots of friends, she's not feeling that way. If you determine that a group of kids really is excluding your child, you probably won't be able to change that.
"But what you can do," Payne says, "is pick little Sophia up and say, 'Sophia, they've got skating down at the park. Let's go!' And before you know it, she's skating with two or three other little girls and her little heart is full — and that gives her more confidence. Don't keep knocking on the same door because you can't make it open — you just can't."
The rejected seventh-grader
The scenario: Your son's longtime best friend has ditched him for the popular crowd: "I'm a social reject."
The response: "As a parent, that's so difficult because every part of you is just dying to defend your kid," says Trice-Black. Still, you'll be more useful if you can maintain some perspective: This stuff is absolutely devastating, but it happens a lot in middle school and it can change overnight.
Start by listening: Really let your child talk through what has happened. Then sympathize, which should be easy. And, finally, help him come up with specific solutions: Is there a person or activity he can turn to in his friend's absence? You might say, "Is there someone else that you feel OK around? I realize they're not your very best friend ever, but (that person) has hurt you."
The one thing you don't want your child to do is to run after the lost friend, begging for an explanation or a second chance; that just makes things worse, Trice-Black says. And try to refrain from bad-mouthing the little traitor yourself. If the kids do end up reconciling, your words will come back to haunt you.
The reluctant 11th-grader
The scenario: Your daughter wants to expand her circle of friends, but she's afraid to try a new after-school activity.
The response: Bradley suggests that you help her pinpoint her fear and view it from a more adult perspective. You might ask, "So you've already thought of joining the community service corps?" (Yes.) "Well, have you done that?" (No.) "Why not?" (I don't know why. I just can't walk in the room.) "OK, sweetie, let me ask you two questions: What exactly is your fear?" (It won't work. I'll walk in and everyone will stare at me.) "OK, sweetie, that thing you're afraid of, is that thing a horror or a frustration?" (A horror.) "Well, sweetie, if you look around the world, do you see other horrors? People are killed and raped and abused. Having a group of kids turn and look at you when you walk in the room, is that a horror or a frustration?" (OK, I guess a frustration.) "All right, sweetie, do you want to let frustrations stop you from living your life?"
Parent-child prep school: Michael J. Bradley's website, docmikebradley.com, includes chapters from some of his books, as well as a reader forum that covers a variety of topics about raising teenagers. Kim John Payne's "Simplicity Parenting" blog includes many articles on parenting; go to simplicityparenting.com/blog.