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Social Studies

Children rank time with their friends as a top priority. In fact, many children say social interaction is the most important part of their school day. Parents often want a better understanding of their child’s social choices and how to help when the going gets rough.

Temperament has a large influence on how a child manages his or her social life. Some kids are naturally outgoing and like a lot of social interaction with a wide variety of people. Others are more introverted and happy with one or two friends. Friendship is more important than popularity, so focus on quality, not quantity. Also keep in mind your child’s choices about socializing may be different from yours.

The guidelines noted below will help parents negotiate the rapids of teasing, cliques, jealousies and breakups that are a part of a child’s social scene.

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Children experiment with social power. Teasing, bossing and exclusion are all techniques children use as they try out different methods of social interaction. Practice is essential at honing social skills and it isn’t always pretty. Most kids decide what works best by trying different approaches and judging the results.

Resist getting involved. Even though you have the urge to call that mean girl’s parents and tell them what their daughter has done, avoid jumping into your child’s social conflicts. We hear complaints from kids about parents interfering in their friendships. If your child asks for help, find out what she wants you to do. Perhaps you can offer guidance so your child can handle the situation independently.

Trust your child’s abilities. Everyone gets bumps and bruises while negotiating social relationships. Most kids do a good job of sorting things out for themselves given time and a supportive listener. Working through a problem enhances self-esteem and can even strengthen the friendship in question.

Ask questions based on positives. Instead of focusing on what went wrong and hurt feelings, find out what your child did to try to address the situation. Compliment him on his efforts and ask if he has any more ideas on what to do. Quizzing a child for details about a painful social interaction is not helpful. Remember, children often make up and move forward in friendships faster than adults. Involving yourself emotionally in your child’s friendships may leave you as the only “injured party.”

Take the long view. Social skills build over time, and experience is a great teacher. Most kids will spend time on both sides of social conflict, some as the rejecter and some as the rejected. Both have valuable lessons to teach.

Keep your own childhood out of it. This is a tough one for parents who experienced social pain as a child. Remembering your own hurt and watching your child go through something similar can be excruciating. It’s imperative to remember your child’s experiences can be very different from your own.

Meet the parents. Getting to know the parents of your child’s friends can help deepen your understanding of the friendship. It also gives context to interactions you observe or hear about between your child and friends. 

Know the difference between social pain and social risk. All kids experience social pain. Normal social pain includes sadness at being left out, feeling hurt when a best friend finds a new best friend, and enduring occasional teasing. The difference between normal social pain and social risk is in the frequency and intensity of problems. If a child consistently complains of headaches or stomachaches to avoid social situations, frequently hassles or bullies other kids, or never gets invitations from other children, he or she is at social risk. If you see these risk factors in your child, speak to his teacher or school guidance counselor. Find out if they see the same patterns of social interaction. If so, find out if the school counselor offers social skills training; many do. Some children require additional assistance through a good working relationship with a therapist. Ask for a referral from his pediatrician or school guidance counselor.

Seeing your children through the peaks and valleys of their social lives can be a challenge. The emotional ups and downs are exhausting at times. Remembering the above tips can assist parents and make the ride a bit smoother.

Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Write to them in care of editorial@familytimes.biz. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being. To comment on this article, write to editorial@familytimes.biz.

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