A Parents’ Guide to Kids & Teens Social Struggles

A Parents’ Guide to Kids & Teens Social Struggles

Watching your child or teenager be rejected or experience unkindness can be incredibly painful and anxiety-producing.  We want our children to fit in, to be liked and appreciated for who they are, and to feel a sense of belonging.  When social problems arise, we can react in different ways: feeling overwhelmed, feeling worried that our child will suffer or things will only get worse, or becoming critical of our teen or their friends. Our efforts to control the situation can backfire and lead our kids to feel unsupported.  When this happens, kids tend to stop sharing their bumps in life with us (for fear we can’t handle it).

The great news is that there is so much that you can do as a parent to help your child or teenager navigate social bumps in the road.  The even better news is that often when you “do less” you help them more.  Next time your child or teen encounters a problem with their friends follow the steps below:

  • Regulate yourself.  It is understandable that you may have a strong reaction to what you hear or observe.  Information we perceive as threatening can very quickly set off a defensive or protective reaction.  Remember that people and relationships are complicated, and you do not want to use your “fight or flight,” primitive brain to handle complicated situations.  Instead, pause for a few deep breaths, take yourself into the bathroom for a splash of cold water, or just resist the urge to say much initially.  Buy yourself time and allow your brain to settle down a little.  Not only will you avoid saying something reactive, but you will also allow your child to do more of the talking.  This will help you better understand them and their perspective.
  • Say less.  When you stay quiet or ask open ended questions, you give your child the time to speak and allow space for them to have their own feelings.  Sometimes we can jump in too quickly with statements such as “that is so mean” or “she isn’t a good friend.”  When we do this, we don’t allow time for our children to explore their own feelings or reactions.  If we want to help our children develop their own internal gauge of what is acceptable in a relationship, we must allow space for them to identify their feelings and build trust in themselves and their experience.  Of course, parents can identify concerns in child/teen friendships that we observe.  But first allow your child or teen the space to have their own reaction prior to sharing your observations.
  • Ask if your child or teen wants your advice or needs your help.  When you ask your child or teen if you can share your thoughts or observations, you model respect for him or her as an individual with a right to solve their own problems.  Statements such as “I have a few ideas about what might help, would you like to hear them” allow your child to be in charge and accept help when they are ready, which is not always when we are ready.
  • Ask questions that will help your child learn to self-reflect.  Questions such as, “what is your reaction to that” or “how did that make you feel” will help your child develop insight into his or her own internal world.  Like when an athlete watches tapes of his or her performance, this type of reflection allows a person to observe themselves and others, with distance from the actual event.  When we support our child’s or teen’s observation skills, we allow them the opportunity to identify what feels good and what went wrong from their point of view.  This will give them the experience needed to identify, approach, and solve problems now and in the future.  By helping your child/teen reflect and be the expert on themselves, you will also help instill confidence in their ability to solve their own problems.
  • Remind yourself that not everything has to be solved right away.  In this world of high-speed connection, we can all fall prey to the urge to respond quickly or deal with something immediately.  Just as we can be reactive, so can our children and teens.  Support them in using helpful regulation and social skills such as putting their phone away for a while prior to responding or asking to speak in person (instead of by text).
  • Model empathy. If we want a kinder world and kinder kids, we have to show them how to do that. Instead of statements such as “how dare she” or “he has always been such a bully,” let’s try “I wonder what is happening for him since he is acting so cruel” or “This sounds like an area that she needs to grow in.”  You can remain clear that your child or teen has a right to feel hurt, that they are allowed to be angry with others’ behavior or even to end a friendship if it is unhealthy for him or her.  Your children listen to the words you say and watch your body language.  When we can navigate difficult situations with empathy, we model for our children that they can still set limits in relationships while being kind to ourselves and the other person.
  • Validate, share ideas, or get help if needed. Watching or hearing about social problems may highlight areas of struggle for your own child or teen.  Start with validation of your teen’s feelings and create an environment where he or she feels love and accepted.  While it can feel difficult or painful to point out areas of struggle to our kids, if a child feels loved and accepted, they will be more open to hearing suggestions on how to improve behaviors or social skills.  He or she may respond with defensiveness, and that is a natural reaction, not an indication that you have done something wrong.  Keep it kind, respectful and supportive.  Being honest with your child can be kind, even if it is difficult.

As parents, we may not know how to solve every problem that comes up, and that is okay.  We may not have the power or authority needed to help our child in more serious situations such as bullying or online aggression.  Find people who can help answer your questions or support your child or teen.  Good places to start are at your child’s school, a local mental health professional, or local law enforcement who may have specific teen officers to help.

For a free guide to “Parenting Teens and Tweens When Things Get Hard,” visit CBT Westport’s Directors’ Parenting Website, The Parenting Pair.