Other kids are picking on him.
Your kid was the only one not invited to the birthday party.
She gets singled out teased by teammates.
There's not a parent alive who doesn't righteously feel angry, powerless, and afraid when their kid has trouble fitting in. It's not clear how to help even though you desperately want to fix this for them.
I tend to want to know where the offending child lives so I can march over and have "words." (Hint: never effective, but it's like my only power-move, ya know?)
As much as you want to fix it for them, intervene, call someone's mother, email the teacher, or whatever protective reflex jumps to your mind, it's actually better if we don't.
Solving their problems for them can actually make things worse. Its disempowering. They don't learn how to do it themselves. The victim mentality grows.
Which makes you feel like you're doing nothing. ("Unacceptable!" you shout. And I hear you)
Making friends, fitting in, being good at social skills... are all the same as learning how to add and subtract, spell words, or any other skill that takes time and practice.
Just like math & science, some children learn faster than others. Some kids need extra help.
There's no shame in this and it doesn't mean something is wrong with your child.
So you can't solve it for him, but you can be the teacher, tutor, guide, coach alongside him as he learns and grows.
You are his best life coach. And you've waded these waters before (who hasn't?), so you're perfectly positioned for this role.
ABOVE ALL OTHER ADVICE IN THIS POST: The most important thing is for your child to feel loved and accepted for exactly who they are at home. Show your child as often as you can.
Here's how you can teach your child the skills she needs to make positive friendships:
1. Treat this like another subject in school.
There's no stigma around doing extra math problems, right? Same thing here.
All you need to do is commit to practicing the right skills for a little extra time on a regular basis.
Practice starting conversations.
Practice back and forth dialog.
Practice finding common interests.
Practice patience in taking turns talking.
Practice listening or being quiet.
You can even practice how to end unhealthy relationships. (a lifelong skill everyone avoids)
Your guidance and practicing together builds confidence and memorization that will become more automatic over time. Just like riding a bike.
2. Make a list of your child's strengths.
Include her in this process if she's old enough. What does she enjoy doing? What is she already good at? This can be anything - subjects in school, outside activities, even creative interests like music style or fashion.
When you focus on anything positive, perceived problems become much smaller. Instead of trying to "fix" your child and help them fit in, you can focus on who they already are and build on an existing foundation.
She may not be an athlete, but what if she's great at music? Set aside academics and honor societies for now because maybe she's really great at helping others.
When she's involved in her own interests and things that excite her, she is much more likely to find her tribe.
3. Drill down into what the real challenge is.
We can say our child is "socially awkward" or "shy" or "disruptive" but that doesn't really give us a lot of information about what's going on.
Get into the most pressing challenge within that context. Find the root, the part that is actually hard for your child. (You can even ask him - "what's the hard part?")
Is it small talk?
Seeing different points of view?
As the adult, this will be more obvious to you. In fact, you probably already know what it is in your head.
What skills does he need to learn in order to overcome this? Pick 2-3 skills to start.
How can you start modeling and teaching these skills on a daily basis with your child?
4. Expand your circle.
The reality is that sometimes kids are just mean. There may be no obvious reason why your child is being singled out or bullied. Sometimes it's just group dynamics, and schools can be particularly unfriendly.
Remember all those interests in step 2? Use them here. Find clubs, teams, youth groups, volunteer opportunities, or even just the neighborhood - anywhere outside of school - and get involved there.
This is one of the most powerful things you can do for her because it gives her the freedom to choose her people.
Schools can be tough because kids are forced into classrooms with people they don't know and are asked to "go along to get along."
You know the feeling when you're stuck in a job with idiots, but you have to play nice so you don't get fired? It's like that. Which is why we start our book / wine / bunco clubs. Those are people we WANT to be with.
5. What makes a good friend?
Teach what to look for in a friend. It's not obvious for kids why they might like or dislike someone. Younger children are just intuitive (you're nice to me and we both like blocks). Complications happen as they get older and see peers becoming popular.
What does a good friend even look like?
The instinct is still there. We're taught to ignore it for status sake, but you can encourage your child to tap back into this intuition. Deep down we all know who's nice and who's a slime ball. We can just feel it when we're around them.
Make this an easy exercise:
- Set a timer and have your child write down as many positive qualities as they can think of in a friend.
- Go over the list together. Talk about why these are important qualities. Have him pick his top 5
- Then do it in reverse. Write down as many negative qualities as they can think of to avoid in a person. Again talk about why you wouldn't want this kind of friend.
- Compare lists. Hang them up as reminders. Point out that your child has the power to choose positive friends and are never forced to be friends with people who have qualities to avoid.
- You can also ask why you think we make friends with the wrong people sometimes. This often brings up discussion about fitting in and peer pressure.
At the end of the day, we've all experienced rejection. We've all risen above it and we've all survived until this point. Humans are resilient adaptors. You can be assured your child will prevail no matter what, and certainly with you by her side.
What we learned about ourselves in the process is that we are fine just as we are, and it does get better.
I don't think I really found true friends until college. Yes the isolation, anxiety, and lack of self-confidence are very real. Which is where you come in to help guide them through this tough time.
Share with your child times that you struggled with relationships. When someone didn't like you so well or you had a hard time fitting in. Or the fact that you STILL hate small talk or avoid hanging out with people that don't get you.
Normalize it and it won't feel as painful. When we know we're not alone, we know that everything will turn out ok.
You’ve got this. Remember: nothing is wrong with your child. They just need help learning this new skill.
You are always the best example.
You are their hero.