When it comes to protecting your offspring from physical harm there are well-defined rules: look both ways before you cross the street, wear your seatbelt, don’t stick a knife in that electrical outlet. But helping your little ones navigate the mean streets of social interaction is much more fraught, and confusing, for everyone involved.
Almost every parent worries about some aspect of his or her child’s social life. Will she make friends at school? Will people think he’s a weirdo because of that strange noise he makes? How will she find a prom date if she can’t even survive a playdate? Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a clinical psychologist and co-author of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids, says children start to worry about friendship issues around the age of seven, when they enter an extremely judgmental phase of their cognitive development, but parental anxiety about a child’s social skills can kick in much earlier.
Kennedy-Moore says a child’s social rejection can bring out the mother lion in many of us, but it’s important not to overreact. “The first step is to take a deep breath,” she says. “A child’s feelings change quickly. So one day your son could come home and say ‘I hate Stuart,’ but by next week they’re best friends.”
If parents sense an ongoing problem, they should begin by getting all the facts, Kennedy-Moore advises. Observe the child’s interactions with other kids, or talk to his teacher. “They’re a good resource, and will often know whether something is just a typical, transitory issue or a real problem,” she says.
When families of school-aged children seek her advice, Kennedy-Moore has one standard diagnostic question: Does your child have someone to sit with and talk to at lunch? “If he has one reciprocal friendship, he’s less likely to be bullied, and he’s probably going to be OK,” she says. If bullying is happening, school officials should be alerted.
But sometimes, a stilted social life may be caused by a minor, yet off-putting, behaviour your child can be gently coached out of through simple role-play. For example, a lot of shy kids have trouble greeting others, looking down and mumbling when they are introduced a behaviour that can be interpreted by other kids as a lack of interest in being friends. Kennedy-Moore says parents should privately help kids practise making eye contact, smiling, speaking loudly and using the other person’s name. “You have to work with a child’s personality, rather than against her personality,” she says. “Not everyone is born a bounding-into-the-room extrovert.”
Lawrence J. Cohen, psychologist and author of the book Playful Parenting, says parents shouldn’t worry about knowing exactly what to do in these situations, but should concentrate on listening. “The idea is to empower your child,” he says. Parents should ask their child: “What have you tried? How did that work? What can you try next?”
They can also help by arranging the right kind of social encounters, ones that match the child’s interests, capacity and social-skill level. Try exposing your kid to different kinds of social time: some might do better with one-on-one encounters or organized activities, while others prefer playdates to be short, or need some time to warm up. And some kids are loners by temperament, Cohen pointed out, but may not feel lonely at all.
“Children need us to be empathetic,” he says, “but they also need us not to confuse our own feelings with their feelings.”
A version of this article appeared in print in our May 2012 issue with the headline: "The social network" (pp. 56-58).