Supportive Strategies Help Kids Build Independence


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Eight-year-old Sophie's brown eyes fill with tears when she is asked after school about her day. "Alexis made fun of my haircut in front of Kevin!" she reports unhappily.

It's tough enough as a parent to hear about our kids suffering a social setback when they're little. But it's even trickier to know how to respond to setbacks once they reach about third grade. Sometimes we're tempted to step in and fix things for them, but after a certain age (unless it's chronic bullying), it can be unwise to interfere. So how do we offer support without becoming overly involved?

Supportive strategies for social setbacks

Clinical psychologists Natalie Madorsky Elman and Eileen Kennedy-Moore offer tips that honor the "whole child" in their book The Unwritten Rules of Friendship. They maintain that children with specific social problems also have corresponding strengths that may be cultivated. "The shy child," for example, "can become a good listener and a loyal friend," they write.

The following strategies for parents are weaved throughout their book:

Give children lots of practice socializing. Make sure your child has opportunities to simply play with other kids, not through structured activities and lessons. Children need practice to learn how to get along well with others. The psychologists recommend short play dates focusing on a planned activity for children who are struggling socially.

Ask teachers for input. It can help to get opinions from your child's teacher, who may be able to shed light on the teasing or exclusion. The teacher may be able to connect the dots and provide helpful information about your child's behavior around other kids. Perhaps your child talks nonstop at home, but her teacher's feedback indicates she is tight-lipped at school. It helps to have such objectivity.

Convey hope. Being left off a birthday party guest list or periodically teased can feel like the end of the world to a child. Remember that most incidents such as these are isolated situations. Help kids gain perspective by expressing your confidence that things will work out. When your child is upset because "everyone hates me," it's important to listen and feel her pain, but also offer hope and focus on future success.

Do not 'interview for pain'

School consultant and psychologist Michael Thompson suggests in his book Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children that when speaking with your child about his day, avoid questions that "interview them for pain." "Was anyone mean to you today?" is the wrong sort of inquiry since it will cause children to search their memories for something negative to report. Instead, keep the focus on how he can successfully handle the situation. Thompson suggests asking the following questions to explore a child's ability to cope after a social setback:

What do you think you'll do if this happens again?

How do other kids handle teasing by so-and-so? Can you do the same?

Have you ever played with so-and-so before?  Did a friend comfort you after you were teased?

Focus on what friendship means

It's tough to relax and step aside when we see our kids hurting. The desire to immediately pick up the phone and contact the parents associated with a conflict can be strong. But it's important to help your child stay focused on the big picture: kindness, respect and true friendship.

In her book When Friendship Hurts, sociologist Jan Yager, Ph.D., discusses the role of empathy in friendship. "The feeling of empathy for a friend ... stems from a deep-rooted emotion toward that friend, but it also reflects a basic ability to listen to others and truly care about what they are going through," she says.

By modeling empathy for our children, we are teaching a meaningful lesson in love they may then pay forward in their social lives and friendships.

Michele Ranard is a professional counselor who understands the desire to "fix" things for our kids. She is a mother and freelance writer.

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