“I have no friends.” I can only imagine how painful it must feel for parents to hear their children speak these words. It certainly breaks my heart when children confide these experiences in me during therapy. As a marriage and family therapist, I work with many children and teenagers who struggle with their peer relationships and, as a result, their emotional and behavioral functioning at home. Parents often ask me, “What can I do to help?” This blog is my attempt to explore this complicated and important question.
LISTEN, REFLECT, and EMPATHIZE
DO: Provide an open, nonjudgmental space in which your children can freely express their thoughts and feelings about experiences with peers. Let your children know that you are listening by periodically reflecting and checking in your understanding with them (“So, during science class, everyone else around you found a partner and you couldn’t. Is that right?”).
DO: Empathize with your children by letting them know that you understand why they would feel a certain way even if you would feel differently.
DON’T: Minimize your children’s experiences. Well-meaning parents may try to reassure their children by saying, “That doesn’t mean no one likes you!” or “Who cares what other kids think?” But comments like these can make your children feel misunderstood and even ashamed by their feelings. Instead, simply reflect their experience (“It was really hard for you when you got picked last in gym”) and empathize (“I can see why you would feel sad.”)
DON’T: Problem solve too soon. Seeing your children upset may spark you to jump in and solve the problem. What children need first, however, is to feel heard and understood. Without this crucial step, children may feel blamed for the problem and, therefore, resistant to problem solve.
PROBLEM SOLVE AND EMPOWER
DO: Help your children consider multiple perspectives. For example, if your children think that no one likes them because no one asks them to play at recess, ask them what else it can mean. After empathizing with them (“I can see why you would think that no one likes you.”), gently challenge them (“I wonder what else it can mean. Let’s come up with a list together.”) Encourage them to take a different perspective (“If you saw someone alone on the playground, what would you think?”) You can also give examples of your own (“If I saw someone alone, I might think that he doesn’t want to play with anyone.”)
DO: Guide your children to come up with concrete solutions. Open ended questions, such as “How can you show someone that you are a good friend?” or “How can you show someone that you want to play?” are great places to start. Coming up with a list of solutions can help your children feel empowered.
DO: Practice! Practice! Practice! Use some of the items on your list of solutions by role playing specific scenarios (ex. Asking someone to play, asking someone to be partners, complimenting someone, engaging in conversation with someone, etc.)
DO: Use praise throughout problem solving. The problem solving process can be challenging, and letting your children know that you are proud of them for thinking of ways to solve their issues can encourage problem solving in the future.
DON’T: Give your children all of your answers. Lead with open ended questions, and ask them for their own solutions. While giving a few ideas is helpful, empowering your children to problem solve can be more meaningful and encouraging.
DON’T: Confuse problem solving for taking blame. Assure your children that it is not their fault for experiencing difficulties with peers and feeling upset, anxious, sad, or angry. Explain to your children that brainstorming solutions is a way to feel better and take care of ourselves, even when something is not our fault.
DO: Reach out for help. Children who have difficulties with peers may experience anxiety, depression, and/or social skills issues. Joining a social group can help your children feel belonging, build self-esteem, practice assertiveness skills, and create connections with other children who have similar experiences. North Shore Pediatric Therapy’s mental health department offers counselors, social workers, and therapists who specialize in working with children who have social struggles.
DO: Talk to your children’s school for support and guidance. Teachers, principals, and school social workers may have ideas on how to help. Or they may not be aware of your children’s experiences, and keeping them informed is important, especially is there are issues with bullying.
DO: Be creative in helping your children create connections with peers. Joining after-school programs, such as martial arts, dance, art, or music, can be a great way to meet and engage with new children. This can also be a wonderful way to boost your children’s self-esteem!
What questions do you have about helping your children with social difficulties? Please share with us.