It is heartbreaking for parents and kids when children struggle to find their place within a peer group. Parents tend to believe that everyone else’s kids have figured this out, but actually, many kids experience angst over finding “their spot” within a peer group. The beginning of school often brings anxious thoughts about how “the fit” will be this year. Here are some ways parents can help.
Wonder about it with your child.
Ask them what they expect to be the same and what they expect to be different this year. Talk about how useful it is to start the year expecting some things to be the same, but being open to new opportunities. The payoff for being flexible is the possibility of making new friends.
Know that most friendships start out as acquaintances.
Explain that, as adults, we often feel the same kind of uncomfortable-ness when we go to meetings or parties where we are not well known. We, too, have to use lots of energy to connect with people we don’t know. Practicing our relationship skills makes entering into new situations easier and more comfortable. With enough practice, a child will find it easier to move in and out of different groups.
If kids are willing to let you help them, talk to them about the elements of good relationship skills. It can become a shared interest to notice how others present themselves. Actually, many of us enjoy people watching. Just look at all the people in the airport watching other people.
Notice the nonverbal language of someone who seems easy to approach. How close to you do they stand? Are they respectful of your space, yet close enough to seem interested in you? Is their posture threatening or relaxed? Do their gestures add an interesting element to their personality or are they intimidating?
Understanding and Sending Facial Expressions
Some kids are not aware of what messages they are sending with their facial expressions. You probably already know if your child frequently misinterprets the facial expressions of other people. Hurt feelings are usually the result of this misfire. A hand mirror is a good tool for verifying that our facial expressions do indeed send the messages we have in our mind.
Learning to sustain eye contact without looking away too quickly is hard for some children. Noticing how other people do or don’t do it will give kids some insight about what is helpful in relationships.
Encourage kids to notice voice tone in other people. What do they find pleasant or irritating? How does tone of voice add or take away from the conversation?
There is help for the socially unskilled
There are many subtleties of relationship skills that we usually learn as we mature. However, some kids don’t pick up these skills easily. The good news is people can learn these skills even if they don’t come naturally. Sometimes assessment and help from a professional may be needed.
Books to Learn More
- Helping the Child Who Doesn’t Fit In by Dr. Stephen Nowicki, Jr. and Dr. Marshall Duke
- Emotional Intelligence by Dr. Daniel Goleman
Phyllis VanHemert, M.Ed., is a Licensed Professional Counselor who sees children and adults. In addition to her counseling practice, Mrs. VanHemert is a Certified Equine Therapist and recently conducted a children’s “Horse SENSE Camp” =for learning life skills. Phyllis and her husband are the parents of a married son. She practices within the offices of Dr. Paul Tobin and Ann Benjamin.