I know it's not Monday. But I've been gill-deep in finishing one play and starting another. So I'm late.
Let me talk about a very difficult subject with a personal anecdote. In high school, I had a friend who was very funny. So was I (at least in my own mind). Together, we were hilarious. Or so we thought. Actually, we were sarcastic and sharp to the point of being quite mean. It's not one of my better times in life. One night, we heard about a party all our friends were having--a party to which we had not been invited.
We are furious and hurt. How could our so-called friends be so cruel as to leave us out? We vented and raged and had our own party, wallowing in bitterness.
At some point, I confronted one of our other friends. He told me that we were had been excluded because we were so sarcastic and caustic that no one wanted to be around us.
That hurt. And it made me mad. And then I realized he was right--and that he had just done me a huge favor by helping me understand what I was doing wrong and giving me the chance to fix it.
It took a while, but with some sustained effort, I was able to change my habits, smooth the rough edges away, and end the year with a very rich and rewarding social life.
I'm so grateful my friend had the guts and honest concern to tell me the truth. He really did me a huge favor.
Okay, let's talk about a very depressing problem that I think most kids (and parents) face at some point in their lives. What do you do if people leave you out of social activities, conversations, etc.?
This is a really painful situation to be in and the cure may seem worse than the sickness at first. But, over the years I have seen people navigate this and come out on top by applying some basic principles.
So, if your child comes home and says that no one likes them, or they are being left out, etc. what do you do?
Sometimes, this might just be in their heads, or at least, not as extreme as they think it is. In 7th grade, for example, no one feels liked. No one feels included. I've written about this before. So, let's leave this aside. Let's assume that your child really is being excluded.
Your tendency will be to see your child as the victim and the others as malicious bullies. Please, for your child's sake, don't do this. In some cases this might be true, but in my experience it is usually far more complex than this.
This is where the cure starts to be a bit painful. You need to try to realistically assess how your child is contributing to the problem.
Over my years in teaching, I have known children who were charming with adults and were really quite nasty to their peers. You need to be open to the possibility that your child is doing something that is off-putting, possibly inadvertently. This is very difficult. It's where you earn your parenting stripes. No one wants to acknowledge that their child might be the issue. But most time when I see social problems, a lot of it rests with the child in question. Peers will vote with their feet. If someone is mean, catty, snide, arrogant, whatever--no one will want to be around them and no amount of parental intervention can ever change that.
How do you find out if this applies to your child? Well, you ask teachers or coaches or, if you feel you can, the parents of their peers. Obviously, this is sensitive and you have to careful in how you approach it. You can't, for example, say, "Hey, your child is excluding my child for reasons I don't understand. Is there something she did to make your daughter act in such an unkind, petty way?" You will need a bit of diplomacy and tact.
You will also need to be prepared for the possibility that they will tell you the truth. And it will hurt. And you will feel defensive and want to lash out or at least defend your child. Don't do this. Bite your tongue. Listen. Nod even if it kills you. And thank them for caring enough to be honest.
I've learned over the years that most people really do not want to hear difficult truths, even when those truths could free them from various problems. I've seen so many difficult situations that could be solved with relative ease IF the people involved could understand the situation and make some changes. But too often, that requires confronting painful realities.
So, if you are lucky enough to get candid advice, listen and thank them. Then think about it and see if you think there is merit to what you hear. Is your child pushy? Bossy? Full of him or herself? Have they been unkind, etc.
Once you know, you can make a plan to try to fix these problems. But wait, there's more and it's IMPORTANT! Like, All-caps important.
It is human nature when we feel someone pulling away from us to push ourselves towards them. The more they pull away, the harder we push towards them. This is almost always a mistake. You will have to help your child stop. If you're in a social hole, stop digging. Whatever is going wrong needs to be fixed, and the current actions have caused the problem. So, stop.
This is hard because your child will be wanting to see instant results. They might have been arrogant for six years, and then they stop for a week and will wonder why things haven't changed. They'll have to be patient and let the others see that they are changing.
Sometimes, a direct conversation might be useful. "Hey, I realize I've been kind of mean and I'm sorry. I hope you'll give me a chance to show you that I want to be better..." Other times, you just have to let time go by and let people see it on their own.
One strategy that might help is to let some time go by where there is a complete suspension of contact (or as complete as is possible)--a few weeks. During this time, your child does not keep pushing themselves onto the group. This is sort of a demonstration of good faith, a chance to clear the social palate, so to speak. After a few weeks, and yes, this will be a painful and lonely time, they might start reaching out to one or two people, inviting them to do something like go see a movie or whatever--something simple, something with a limited emotional and time commitment, etc. Your child needs to essentially woo them back, showing that they can be trusted.
It's important to resist the temptation to be clingy here, or to rush the relationship--it's very similar to dating, really--the same pitfalls and the same bad consequences, namely being alone.
Yes, this is painful, and yes, it takes some time. But usually, if you don't do something like this, the problem gets worse. I've seen so many kids over the years who just absolutely sabotage their social life by being a bit of a pill, and then, when people retreat, pushing hard. A strategic retreat, some honest self-assessment (with parental guidance) can make a huge difference.
And, the rewards are well worth the discomfort.
May I repeat some thoughts about adolescent social problems? In fairly direct terms?
I know I've been hammering on this topic for a while, but I see it over and over. As a teacher, it seems so clear to me. As a parent, it's much murkier because it hits emotional buttons that make it hard to respond objectively and rationally. Because of that, I'm going to speak as directly as I can--but I don't mean to sound harsh. Imagine this being said in a soft voice with a gentle, but concerned smile on my face.
I believe that dealing with social problems in middle school occupies nearly as much teacher time as academics (that will vary from school to school--I'm making a generalization). I am convinced it occupies far more parent time and energy than academics and I KNOW it occupies vastly more student energy and thought than academics.
In some cases there may be a genuine good guy vs. bad guy situation where a pack of mean bullies victimizes another child. I know that happens, but I really believe that these cases are in the minority. This post is not about students who are being legitimately bullied. At the same time, I believe most parents generally assume that this is what is happening when their kids encounter social problems.
However, barring very solid evidence to the contrary, I suggest that parents should assume that their child's social problems are not caused by other people, at least not fully.
Let me give you an example. I am well acquainted with a young man who loved marching band, chess, Star Wars and legos. Especially marching band. He expressed frustration with the fact that none of the other boys in his peer group at church would talk to him about marching band. All that they wanted to talk about was football.
He had a few choices at this point. A) Insist that he was going to be himself no matter what and keep trying to interest the other boys in marching band B) Change totally and give up what he loved. C) Rant and rave at the fundamental unfairness of the universe. Or, D) retain his own interests, but learn enough about football to carry on a conversation.
As we explored the various options, he wisely decided to try option D. He started to watch football--something he had no interest in. He asked questions. He memorized stats. He learned player names.
Something miraculous happened. At first, he had to pretend, to feign interest and his interactions were awkward. But the more he persisted, he developed the ability to really chat about football. He found that he enjoyed football. And, his conversational skills improved as well. He still loved marching band. That didn't change. But he gained a new hobby, better social skills, and a more comfortable social situation. That will benefit him for the rest of his life.
I feel like our pop culture has created this romantic image of the underdog and the outcast. We have popular notions of mean jocks or venemous cheerleaders tormenting helpless but sweet nerds. Again, I'm not saying that never happens. But as with most Hollywood legends, there is more complexity in reality.
If your child has social problems, consider that your child might have some responsibility for the situation. I'm sorry, I know that sounds harsh. I don't mean it to be. But we often assume, by default, that our children are right and good and virtuous and the others are at fault.
I've been watching adolescents now, for over 25 years in different contexts and I really believe that most social problems are not good-guy-vs-bad-guy-situations.
Consider this: your child might not have very good social skills. There's no shame in that! It's not an insult. In fact, it's very normal. Most of us aren't born with good social skills and have to learn them. That's part of what adolescence is about. But if your child is struggling, this is the first place to start. Help your child assess and monitor their social skills. If needed, you can get some professional help. Ask the teachers what they see. Watch them carefully in social settings. Helping your child learn to be self-aware and analytical is painful. And one of the greatest gifts you can give them.
One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was that they saw me as being an incomplete, immature, unfinished work in progress who needed to be taught, pushed, moulded, and motivated. They gave me feedback. They told me when I did things badly. My dad saw some pretty lacking social skills and he worked with me on it. I didn't like it at the time. At all.
Now, I'm deeply grateful. To be honest, I'm still pretty uncomfortable in social situations. I don't think I have a lot of social grace and ease. But my dad's coaching and criticism improved it and helped me get better at least.
I have learned that the "popular" kids are usually popular for a reason. Everyone likes them because they have good social skills. There might be some other factors, but I've noticed, repeatedly, that the kids who are most generally popular are usually that way because they have learned how to interact well with others and have social currency--things to talk about and discuss.
If your child is being excluded, consider carefully why that's the case. Do they dress or talk or act vastly different from everyone else? That's their choice, by the way. If someone wants to be a very obviously unique soul, there's nothing wrong with that. But you can't choose to be an individualist and then complain that you don't fit into the crowd. They might need to learn some sports stats or listen to some contemporary singers.
Or they may choose not to. That's fine, too. But realize that social status has a price. You have to pay that price if you want the status. If you don't want to pay the price, that's fine. But you can't complain at the outcome.
I have seen so many children over the years who make no effort at all to get to know their peers, to understand their interests or reach out in any way. In fact, it becomes an almost perverse point of pride--they are almost defiantly different and detached. But then their parents complain about "cliques" or talk about how no one reaches out and so on.
This drives me crazy--it is fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul. If your child is left out, a natural parenting response is to comfort them by saying that everyone else is wrong and doesn't see what a treasure they are. That's a lovely thought. It's also totally unhelpful in terms of changing the situation for your child.
It is fundamentally against the order of the universe to insist that you can be and do whatever you wish while simultaneously insisting that everyone else around you responds in exactly the way you wish.
I'm not saying that kids have to give up who they are and just blend in with the crowd. That's not going to work. But I am saying that they may need to learn a second language as it were--like the boy in the example above learned about football. Like learning a language, they will be awkward and hesitant at first. They will make mistakes. But if they persist, they will eventually become bilingual. This will not hurt them, nor will it mar the integrity of who they are.
And let's be honest. Adolescents aren't done yet and shouldn't be seen as finished products. They're, well, adolescent. Juvenile. Even the best of them are incomplete. I get a bit annoyed when I hear parents talk about their adolescents as if they are special, amazing, fully-developed humans worthy of emulation and celebration. They're not. They're immature. They need many more years of development, growth, and experience. They are caterpillars. Some are very charming caterpillars. But to see them as being complete is to rob them of the chance to become butterflies.
At some point, your child will have to learn to adjust to a college roommate. A boss. Co-workers. A spouse. In-laws. And so on. Helping them now learn to assess what they can do better and focusing on their choices and their actions will be so much more healthy and helpful for them in the long run than grumbling about cliques and exclusion. To do otherwise is to condemn the child to a lifetime of social frustration.
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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