Not fitting in at school: How to help your kid

Preteens start to recognize there’s a pecking order to the social scene—and where they are fitting in to it.

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Ten-year-old Rachel* is a voracious reader who talks non-stop about her favourite books and comics, and loves to perform skits for her family. Her mom, Sandy Gallagher*, describes her daughter as gregarious, but she says that Rachel has seemed lonely lately. In the last half of grade four at her Toronto school, Rachel started to feel like she wasn’t fitting in—she was even labelled “geek” and “nerd”—after she developed a passion for books. After having a small-but-sure group of friends since kindergarten, Gallagher wondered how and why things had shifted.

Child clinical and school psychologist Paulo Pires, from Milton, Ont., says the timing isn’t coincidental. “From nine until 11—what we call middle childhood—kids start to gain awareness of similarities and differences within peer groups, and hierarchies begin to develop,” he says. This puts some kids in the “cool” group while others float on the periphery. Pires’ colleague, child clinical and school psychologist Shonna John, adds that they reflect more on the successes and failures of themselves and others, analyzing triumphs—whether at hockey or chess club—and using that to categorize peers. This stage of development is completely normal, but it’s not easy for those left out. Some kids are naturally into activities considered popular, which at this age tend to be athletics, but not everyone can be a sports star. Where does that leave the bookworm, theatre aficionado or computer whiz?

Gallagher had noticed that Rachel’s circle of friends was shrinking, and one day Rachel opened up about it, saying, “’Why can’t I find someone else who likes the same things I do?’” It broke Gallagher’s heart, but because she went through the same thing in elementary school, she understood how Rachel felt. “I spent every recess alone reading,” she recalls. “It was difficult, but I know it will get better for Rachel. Once I got to high school, I met like-minded people and we clicked.” That sounds like a long time for Rachel to wait, but John warns parents not to rush in to fix the problem. First, allow your child room to navigate things on her own, and just keep an eye on the situation. Social orders can cause hurt feelings, but they don’t normally fall into bullying territory. (If things escalate, contact the school about next steps.)

But don’t just assume your child is bothered by her status, says John; you may be projecting some of your own unfounded fears. Some kids are introverted and perfectly content pursuing hobbies on their own, but if they do express frustration or loneliness, offer support and stay positive. Let them know they’re loved and accepted at home, and be honest—it can take time to connect with the right kids. If your child struggles with assertiveness or has trouble joining a conversation, try role-playing at home to help build these skills.

Gallagher sparked a dialogue with bedtime chats, which are helping Rachel. “I don’t push her to integrate; I encourage her to explore her love of books and tell her I know things are hard, but she will find people who share her interests.” Gallagher sees a glimmer of positivity. “She used to say, ‘No one will ever like me,’ but has shifted gears to, ‘Maybe in grade five I will find someone.’”

And while it doesn’t play out the same way for everyone, kids’ worlds get larger as they grow, giving them more opportunities to build new social circles. You can help by signing your kids up for clubs or groups they’re keen on. “Common interests bring friends together, but one school can’t provide everything,” says Pires. (Gallagher has begun checking local libraries for kids’ book clubs for Rachel.)

As she finds her place, let your child know there’s no official coolness scale—it’s very subjective—and encourage her to embrace her passions. It may leave her outside of the in-crowd, but what’s more important is the joy she gains from her pursuits.

While these can be hard lessons for kids to learn (and for parents to watch), they’ll eventually discover that genuine friends are worth the wait.

Did you know? A study conducted by a professor at the University of Virginia suggests that kids considered cool in middle school don’t often maintain their position in the social hierarchy. In fact, those who get social strongholds early in life may turn to drugs or criminal activity to maintain their “cool” status in later years.

*Names have been changed

A version of this article appeared in our September 2014 issue with the headline “Not cool,” pp. 78.

Read more:
The end of a friendship
Are best friends bad?
What to do about school bus bullying

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