Fitting in is hard. It is hard when you are an adult…let’s be real. It’s a million times harder when you are a kid and trying to find your way. It is difficult enough trying to figure out who you are, but trying to figure out where and with whom you fit in only adds to the stress.
Children’s social lives often feel beyond our control during their school years. All parents hope for the best, envision their children making good and positive friends, and imagine wonderful supervision from teachers and faculty in the process. And yet, the realities of school life often do not fit these idealistic notions.
We don’t know the children our kids will migrate toward, who will be kind or unkind to them, and who will influence their paths when we aren’t around. We become observers of their behaviors when they come home and careful listeners to their stories about their day. We give the best advice and guidance that we know how to give, and then send them back into their environment and hope for the best.
For many of you, your children have close friends with whom they can feel free to be themselves. Perhaps, they don’t succumb to social pressures, have the confidence to love themselves, and the good fortune of friends who also love them. By the same token, many of you have children who are bullied or who feel pressure to fit in. Others of you have children who haven’t found loving and supportive friendships and who often feel isolated and alone, perhaps even depressed and anxious.
So, looking forward, not knowing what waters your child will tread, what can you do when he feels alone, isolated, or unsure of himself? What can you do if you see him changing simply to fit in and make friends?
1.Don’t let let your child isolate from you.
Lonely, frustrated, sad, and anxious children can be avoidant. These days with the advent of screens, children often come home from stressful days and want to turn to their online worlds to drown out the day’s stress. Giving your child some decompression time after school is important, whether that is an hour of watching tv or playing outside. But beyond that, be sure that you engage him in one on one parent-child time daily, for at least 30-60 minutes a day. If it means staying up a little past bedtime to ensure you get this time in, then do so.
Communicating with him and spending time together is essential to him being able to talk to you about what is going on in his life. Don’t let routines get in the way of this time when your family is busy. When kids stuff their feelings inside, we lose touch with them, and they are left to navigate stress on their own.
2. Let your voice of affirmation be louder than anyone else’s.
Make sure your child knows you believe in him. Make sure he knows all the wonderful things you see in him individually and that nothing will ever change that. Don’t offer praise or affirmation with “buts” or conditions (i.e. “You are really sweet when you want to be” or “You are smart but you didn’t do so great last week on that quiz”). Make sure to offer praise…period. And be specific! (i.e.”You are so kind toward other kids your age and you are positive and supportive to others which makes you a great friend.”)
The louder and more regular your affirmation is in your child’s mind, the more likely he will be able to drown out cruel voices and the less likely he will be to seek affirmation in the wrong places. You are your child’s biggest cheerleader!
3. If bullying is an issue, teach your child to be assertive.
Walking away from bullying isn’t always the right thing to do. Children who walk away from bullies and just tell a teacher are often viewed as “tattles”. They often learn to tell but not to assert themselves. Telling is important, but it is only half the battle. Teaching your child that it is OK to assert himself when someone else is being cruel or doing wrong is equally important.
Often, children begin using “comebacks” like “I know you are but what am I?” to defend themselves. Encourage your child to not use comebacks like this. It only matches unkindness with unkindness, and it usually is not productive at making other children change their ways either.
Instead, teach your child to use firm and assertive language (i.e. “You are being really mean, so I don’t want to play with you anymore” or “You are not including me and that is unkind”). You want your child to learn to be authentic, honest, and unafraid to speak up.
4. Encourage your child to be himself and point out that individuality is a predictor of long term ingenuity and success.
Provide examples of successful people who are not afraid to own their uniqueness, to see their individuality as a strength, and who are leaders and not followers.
5. Acknowledge your child’s desire for friendship and connection.
Be open and normalize your child’s desire for good friends. Make statements that validate (“I understand that you want to have good friends who are caring and support you”). You don’t have to have a “fix”. You do need to be a listener and validate your child’s feelings.
6. Find a place after school where your child can form vital friendships and feel more confident.
Go out of your way, if need be, to find that place. Rather than being passive and figuring that one day your child will find what he likes, take an active role in helping him find a place where he can thrive and form relationships. Even if you are an introvert and don’t have a huge need for friends, the fact is that your child needs supportive peers. Whether it is an art class, karate, swimming, a new sport, dance, or a church youth group, try some options out for your child. You may not hit the mark the first time, but keep trying.
7. If your child is in elementary school, reach out to teachers if he is struggling socially.
Teachers are often glad to help facilitate social interactions that are positive. Sometimes, small measures like classroom seating changes can help a child to be near someone who is a good friend “match”. Teachers often have good insight into which kids fit well together socially, and seating changes can make a huge difference. I’ve also known wonderful teachers over the years who have managed to change a classroom dynamic socially through heartfelt discussion.
8. If your child is in middle school and you’ve reached a point where he is struggling regularly despite advocating for himself, don’t be afraid to communicate with teachers and faculty.
Middle school teachers can often help to build up a child’s confidence. Again, over the years, I’ve seen many invested teachers who take the extra time to build children up emotionally, help them socially through meaningful and yet discreet interventions, and who address bullying in ways that are creative and have impact.
9. Resilience is important and children learn from adversity. However, be mindful of the consequences of exposing your child to unnecessary and potentially damaging stress.
Parents often ask me if they are being “helicopter parents”. There is a difference between protecting your child from every adverse circumstance and stepping in when your child needs you to intervene. If your child is emotionally or physically unsafe at school, it is your job to intervene as a parent and advocate for your child.
10. If nothing is helping reduce the stress, consider your options.
If your child is struggling with depression or anxiety as a result of not feeling socially accepted, seek professional help. Remember that in kids, depression and anxiety often present as irritability and low frustration tolerance.
If your child is continually asking to be home schooled and school refusal is a major issue, or if you feel that stress at school is too much and causing a lot of anxiety, consider homeschooling. Options in this realm are plentiful these days and much easier than most parents imagine. Often, if home is more emotionally safe, it helps for children to home school, and co-ops and after school activities can help kids to stay engaged and connected with peers.
“2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”- Ephesians 4:2 NIV