The unwritten test for children
‘Failing’ at the rules of social engagement can lead to depression, anxiety
Unlike an academic exam held in a classroom, the rules of social engagement are unwritten. For adults, this could mean awkward moments and occasional embarrassment. For kids, though, this “test” can have profound and dire consequences. If they “fail,” they could be ostracized from friends, have difficulty making new ones, and feel a sense of general isolation from everyone.
The hardest part is they may not have “failed” in whatever social situation is bothering them, but a kid’s perception is of course his/her reality. Often, it is the kids who isolate themselves, which can make it even harder for a parent to understand exactly what’s going on.
In my private practice, I see this kind of thing everyday. ‘“I’m not strong enough, manly enough, pretty, smart or good enough.”’ These kinds of thoughts can begin in kids as young as second and third grade.
Many parents ask me why their child struggles, while other children seem to negotiate their social environment so easily. Sometimes kids struggle with social anxiety because of certain instances or events that have happened to them, while sometimes kids are born with personalities and temperaments that are more prone to experiencing anxiety and depression.
Other kids do not know how to engage with their peers, as they are not interested in the current fads or topics of conversation among their peers. In addition, technology has increased the ways that kids can dismiss, bully or isolate their peers, making it even more difficult to engage in friendships. The result is that a much larger percentage of girls and boys feel isolated than many parents realize. Of course, not every kid out there feels isolated to the point of experiencing true anxiety and/or depression, but here are some symptoms to look for in your child’s behavior if you are concerned.
- Sickness, stomach aches, and/or headaches that coincide with a strong, expressed desire to not want to go to school
- Preference for isolation at home and school
- Disengagement from peers and friends
- Increase in anger and/or frustration
- Poor academic performance
Frankly, all kids may experience one or several of these symptoms at some point. To determine if these behaviors in your child are temporary or represent a potential long-term shift, here are several steps you can take.
- Communicate with your child. Keep an open dialogue and talk about their friends, their experience at school. Find ways to keep the discussion going. Be inquisitive. Don’t just talk. Listen and ask questions.
- Avoid critiquing your child. The moment you criticize a sensitive point your child has said to you in confidence is precisely when the conversation will end.
- Reduce ambiguity in your child’s life by addressing their concerns and helping them understand what to expect on a daily basis so you can help lessen their anxiety.
- Help them develop solid friendships by encouraging them to hang out with kids outside of school or through extracurricular activities, such as sports or music.
- Engage your child in an activity or program where there are other adult mentors to help them build self-confidence and increase their self-esteem. Research suggests that having just one activity in a child’s life where he/she feels successful will result in a higher sense of self-esteem and a greater ability to negotiate a variety of social situations.
If no form of communication or engagement in activities or peer groups seems to have a positive impact on your child, then you should consider taking your child to a therapist or counselor so your child can talk through their concerns and worries.
Once you have determined how best to support your child, the last step is to work with the child’s therapist, guidance counselor, and/or others to help him/her develop coping skills. Ultimately, it’s not about who you want your child to be, it’s about helping your child feel comfortable being who they are.
It is definitely not easy, but research is clear that kids who have parents who actively communicate and support them will live healthier, happier lives. I cannot think of any greater goals for my kids or my clients.
Tracey Tucker is Executive Director of New Heights: Adventures for Teens and a licensed mental health counselor at Tradeport Counseling Associates in Portsmouth.