No wonder their social lives are complicated: By the time they’re 11, most kids spend half of their waking hours with peers! That’s according to Laura S. Kastner, Ph.D., a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington, and author of several books on parenting tweens and teens, including ParentMap’s new book, Getting to Calm.
Social problems are a universal experience; we’ve all had them. “Virtually everyone has been a victim — and perpetrator — of social cruelty at some time,” like exclusion, teasing and rejection, says Kastner. All children experiment with power, and this is just one element of that exploration.
Today’s hyper-connectedness further complicates matters, because kids have little downtime, says Liana Montague, a child and family therapist who works with adolescents at Friends of Youth in Issaquah. “[Teens] don’t separate themselves from social life enough,” she says. “It actually slows down their brain development.” So, while children this age may seek more independence, they probably need more guidance than they think they do.
That’s not to say that parents should manage their children’s social lives; quite the contrary. Experts agree that too much parental control in kids’ lives — known as “overparenting” or “helicopter parenting” — isn’t helpful. On the flip side, it’s important that parents don’t expect kids to handle it all without support and guidance. “Be ready to jump in when need be,” advises Kastner. What — and how much — to do depends on the child’s age, temperament, maturity and the situation.
You can’t sanitize it
“Childhood has never been — and never will be — perfect,” says Kastner. The goal is not to protect children from every single social bump and bruise, she says. There is no doubt that there are damaging things that we don’t want to see kids endure, but, in general, it’s actually beneficial to survive some social bumps, says Kastner.
We shouldn’t be afraid to let them fail on occasion, Montague says. “From failure, they learn confidence and independence. They learn resilience.”
Kastner agrees: “How else can a child become strong without practicing a strong voice?
“One of the key things that parents can do to support the development of a socially competent child is to provide a loving, secure and responsive parent-child relationship,” says Kastner, and research bears her out. Securely attached children have been shown to be more self-reliant, have higher self-esteem and are more well-adjusted than other kids — and that prepares them to expect positive things from other social relationships and gives them crucial skills to maintain them, Kastner says.
West Seattle mom Tara Brinker-Cullen says that mutual trust is a foundation of her 12-year-old son’s secure attachment. “When he tells me something in confidence, I always keep it in confidence,” she says. Her goal? To provide a safe place for those all-important discussions about social issues.
Popularity is not happiness
“Kids really only need one or two friendships in order to be successful socially,” Kastner says, but she recommends parents try to provide a wide range of friendship and group opportunities for their kids. Get to know your child’s friends — and their parents. But remember, you shouldn’t try to control your child’s choice of friends, even when choices baffle you. It’s typical and healthy for tweens and teens to make a transition from choosing friends who are more like them to choosing friends who are quite different. “Sometimes part of the child wants to be very different than he is,” explains Kastner, “so choosing a very different friend can help him live this out.”
Never bad-mouth friends, says Kastner. That strategy can backfire by forcing your child to defend his friend.
“It takes a long time to grow up,” says Kastner. “Expect messes, bad actions and massive immaturity.”
It’s also important to remember that social lives are works in progress — even for adults! Seattle mom Laura Gilliam makes a point of teaching her kids by example. “When I observe or experience social situations that are interesting, I tell them what I notice and how I am feeling,” she says. “I want them to know it’s a process.”
Experts suggest that the most effective style of parent coaching on these issues is a low-key one. Bellevue mom Janelle Durham talks with her 12- and 15-year-old daughters about social concerns and provides suggestions — if asked.
But Durham is careful to stay quiet if they don’t ask for her help. “There have been a few times where I have observed things, but I am always careful to approach them in a way that just says, ‘I noticed this. How do you feel about this?’ rather than in a way that defines something as a problem.”
Clearly, a big part of helping kids through social issues is just being available to answer their questions — but don’t just wait around to be asked, says Montague. “Continue to emphasize that you are available. And then force yourself to be available when they ask.”
Tera Schreiber is a freelance writer and frequently can be found coaching her three independent-minded children through their own social issues.
Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children by Michael Thompson, Cathe O’Neill-Grace and Lawrence J. Cohn
Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens and Teens by Laura S. Kastner, Ph.D., and Jennifer Wyatt, Ph.D.