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Ways to help kids survive social dilemmas

Published on: November 01, 2006

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

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 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

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

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


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.

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.

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,, 360-794-3879

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