Elementary | Tweens + Teens | Behavior + Discipline | Ages 6–10 | Ages 11–14 | Ages 15–18

Ways to help kids survive social dilemmas

Ever watched preschoolers interact? They're happy to play blocks, puzzles, dolls, games -- whatever is available with whoever is available. It's a time of equal-opportunity socialization. These 3- and 4-year-olds haven't quite figured out the requisite boy/girl code of conduct, and "popularity" has yet to emerge as the pre-teen deity.

By grade school, those treasured days of social equanimity are pretty much over. "Let's play blocks together" morphs into elaborate exercises in negotiation. "In early elementary school, friendship becomes more of an agreement and contract, with more expectations and rules," says Kathy Sarin, a school psychologist for the Bellevue School District. "Girls in particular will make up rules such as 'you're going to be in charge of picking colors.' Then they practice negotiating what the specific rules will be."

As kids get older, their social world takes on greater significance, she says. "Children spend twice as much time with their friends in later elementary years than they do in the early grades," Sarin says. "Expectations get more sophisticated and include qualities such as loyalty, mutual understanding and support for one another."

It may sound like great fun, but all that social time comes at a price: Inevitably, kids get upset, hurt or angry -- or all of the above -- because of problems that surface with their school friends. And that anger and disappointment can affect learning.

"When kids encounter social dilemmas, some become sad or depressed and decide they 'hate' school," says Meggan Jun, a school psychologist and counselor at Newport High School in Bellevue. "Others get so anxious, they don't want to come at all."

Sarin notes that peer relationships play a larger-than-life role in the day of a grade-school student. "A fifth grader can cry for an hour if her friends have ganged up on her at recess," she says.

Teachers and counselors say boys and girls deal with social issues differently. "Boys will be out playing basketball, get in an argument, and 10 minutes later they're fine," says Jami Hiester, a youth and family counselor at Youth Eastside Services.

Deborah Phillips, founder of Coach-Parenting, which offers workshops and training for parents, says boys often use sports as a social measuring stick. Boys also score social points if they own cool things, she says. "The most popular kid can be the one with the most 'toys' at home."

Girls are typically judged by who has the nicer clothes and who's involved in what activities, Phillips notes. And girls are subjected to the ever-present "clique."

Cliques can be ruthless, Jung says. "Girls blackball each other during the year. There's lots of behind-the-back chatter that girls use as a way to get ahead in the group," she notes. "And the information always gets back to the person that's being talked about."

Clique memberships can shift quickly. In his book, The Friendship Factor, author Kenneth H. Rubin notes, "A once 'in' clique member may find herself abruptly 'out,' due to nothing more than the capricious manner in which such status can shift among children of this age."

Some kids are naturally socially savvy and know how to read social cues, Sarin points out. Other kids just don't have those skills.

Teach social skills, self-esteem

How can you tell if your child's on the losing end of a social struggle? Kids who feel marginalized at school often become frustrated or withdrawn -- and are more likely to become aggressive, Sarin notes. They might sleep less, cry more, get clingy, lose their appetites and suffer from stomachaches or headaches.

When parents zero in on their child's social life as the source of his (or her) woes, they often reach for a quick fix. They've been known to confront other parents -- or even the student who's making their kid miserable, Jung says. "A parent's first impulse is to solve these issues for their kids," she notes. "But it's better to give kids some tools to help them solve them for themselves."

What should parents do? They can talk to their youngsters about whom to approach at school for help, Jung says. They should discuss problem-solving options: offer ways kids can stand up for themselves and ways they can stand up for other kids. The Web site www.bullystoppers.com offers ideas -- and "101 comebacks for dealing with mean kids."

Parents can reinforce social skills by providing lots of opportunities for their children to practice them, Sarin advises. "Get kids involved in sports, church groups and play dates. Plan activities that encourage interaction."

And parents can also help children develop self-esteem, Phillips suggests. "They'll learn that how they think about themselves comes from within -- and not from others around them."

In addition, parents should talk about qualities such as honesty and loyalty, and help kids understand why they are important. "The goal is not to make sure your children are never hurt by social dilemmas," she says. "The goal is to help them understand how to make themselves OK again."

If a child is experiencing an abundance of teasing or bullying, parents should approach a teacher or school counselor. "Children shouldn't have to deal with that by themselves," Sarin says.

Linda Morgan, ParentMap's contributing editor, writes frequently on education issues.

Tips for surviving social dilemmas


It has nothing to do with you. Someone who says mean things to another person does so based on how he is experiencing the world at that moment, not because the other person deserves it, and certainly not because the mean things are true. Your child may even get to the point where he can feel sorry for someone who is feeling so badly about himself that he chooses to say mean things to other people.

Build a larger circle of influence. Expand your child's circle of influence through sports, clubs and other activities with children from other schools or communities. A child who looks to only a small group of friends at school for reassurance about herself can experience big ups and downs in her self-esteem depending on how those friends are treating her at any particular time.

Help your child know who he is, so his sense of self is not dependent on comments made by others. You can do this in everyday situations by asking your child to stop and pay attention to himself and his thoughts. Ask your child to think about why he chose to do something, about what is important to him right at that moment, or about what kind of person he is being at the moment. Then reflect his answers back with a comment that begins with, "Oh, so are you someone who...?"Let him agree, disagree or offer an alternative. In this way, you are helping your child discover who he is rather than letting him be told who he is by others.

-- From Coach-Parenting, www.coach-parenting.com, 360-794-3879

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