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Being a Friend

The autumn return to school is an emotional time for kids. Most feel sad to leave summer behind and also excited about connecting with old friends and meeting new ones. Some children navigate the social scene with relative ease, incorporating new friendships with little trouble. Other kids, however, seem to struggle. They have difficulty making and keeping friends.

The importance of friendship is something everyone understands. Friends provide companionship and emotional support, and they are integral to a happy childhood. Children learn about and experiment with social rules, roles, conflict resolution; the list goes on and on.

For those children who experience significant peer rejection, the emotional risks are real. About 10 percent of school-age children are disliked by a majority of their peers and have no friends in their classroom, according to University of Illinois-Urbana researchers Gladys Williams and Steven Asher in their series of articles for the National Network for Child Care. These children are at higher risk for depression and report lower self-esteem. Not surprisingly, they are also likely to report disliking school and have lower academic performance.

As a parent, what should you do if your child is in that 10 percent? First, observe and identify which behaviors and social skill deficits are contributing to the problem. Frame the situation as your child needing to learn more skills and then practice them. You are helping your child learn the rules of society and culture. Here are some common social skill issues that can lead to peer rejection.

Bossiness or aggression. All kids can be bossy at times. It’s part of learning about leadership, assertiveness and conflict management. When your child’s bossiness is nearly constant or transforms into aggressive behavior as an attempt to get his or her way, it becomes a problem. Aggressive behavior can be both physical and verbal, including threats and intimidation.

Dishonesty and exaggeration. Nothing undermines friendship like a betrayal of trust. Exaggeration can have the same negative effect as lying. It’s normal for kids to embellish or dramatize on occasion. When it becomes a pattern of interaction, it sends the message “this person can’t be trusted.”

Lack of consideration. This one can take many forms. Being a sore loser or arrogant winner will strain a relationship. So will refusing to let the other person choose the activity or go first. A child who is inconsiderate of how her behavior affects peers often has social trouble.

In addition to your own observations, ask teachers, coaches and other adults who see your child in social situations their views on your child’s social skills. If your concerns are shared, consider ways to address deficits. For example, if your child tends to take over conversations and turn the topic to himself (inconsiderate) coach him on the “art of conversation.” Role-play how to ask for details, give compliments and validate what his peer is saying. Your conversation might look like this:

Parent: OK, we are going to practice talking with your friend Ryan. I’ll be Ryan and you be you. Hi, Daniel! Guess what? I went to my uncle’s camp this weekend and learned to water ski.

Daniel: Where’s your uncle’s camp?

Parent: Somewhere in the Adirondacks. It was so cool! He has a motorboat he drives all over the lake.

Daniel: My grandpa’s friend has three boats at his camp and they are all really fast. Grandpa says I might be able to drive one if I go there.

Parent: Remember you are talking about what Ryan did. Instead of talking about Grandpa’s friend, maybe you could say something nice to Ryan, or ask him a question.

Daniel: OK. Um, was water skiing hard?

Parent: At first it was, but my uncle said I got the hang of it pretty quick.

Daniel: That’s what happened to me when I went snowboarding…

Parent: Keep it on Ryan.

Daniel: Um, cool, it’s probably because you skateboard and have good balance.

In addition to coaching and practicing social skills for interactions with peers, make sure you expect those same behaviors at home. Allowing a child to interrupt a sibling’s conversation or behave badly after losing a board game only reinforces the behaviors causing trouble with friends.

If a child’s lack of social skills causes persistent disruptions at home or at school, it may be time to seek outside help. These chronic interactions can interfere not only with making and keeping friends; they can hurt school performance and emotional health. Many elementary and middle schools offer social skills groups through the guidance office. If a mental health professional is needed, the school guidance counselor or your pediatrician’s office can offer some options.

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. 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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