“Kids at school are picking on my child.” “My child was the only one not invited to the birthday party.” “My child’s teammates tease him.”
In my private practice, I work with many parents of kids with learning and thinking differences. And social challenges like these can be some of the most difficult topics for them to talk about. When children struggle to fit in or are treated poorly by the other kids, parents may feel angry, powerless and afraid. They want to help, but don’t always know how.
Sometimes parents will jump in and try to solve their child’s social problems. But I don’t recommend that. It just isn’t helpful. Fighting a child’s battles for him can lead him to feel more victimized and even poorer at socializing.
That doesn’t mean you don’t have a powerful role to play, however. When a child is having trouble fitting in at school or in social settings, the best thing you can do is show him that he’s accepted and loved for who he is at home.
It may seem like that’s “doing nothing” to help the situation. But in fact, it has a big impact.
When kids feel consistently accepted for who they are at home, it makes them better able to cope with outside stressors.
Kids who feel like they don’t “fit in” because of their learning or thinking differences need more help to develop the skills to manage problem situations. You can’t solve your child’s problems for him. But you can walk alongside him and give him helpful perspective on the world of friendship and social interactions.
There are outside sources of support parents can look into, as well. I often suggest asking the guidance department if there’s a social skills group at school. If there isn’t, ask about whether the school might start one. There may also be local social skills groups or classes for kids that are run by professionals.
Here are some other steps I recommend when your child has trouble fitting in:
- Sign your child up for activities that tap into his interests. If all the kids are focused on a shared passion, it creates common ground to connect over.
- Talk openly about social challenges. Explain to your child that he’s not the only one to have these types of difficulties. At the same time, help him make sense of why these situations are happening. You can say things like, “It’s not your fault that you’re having these problems, but we can learn about ourselves from good and bad experiences.”
- Promote your child’s own problem-solving skills. Place your child in new situations where he’s a little uncomfortable (while you're there to back him up). Doing that can build up his confidence.
- Explain that genuine friendship is when we feel good about ourselves when we are with a person. Encourage him to move away from the kids who do not treat him well.
- Empathize with his feelings without dwelling on the negative. Share some experiences from your own life where you were teased or left out, and how you handled things. It’s important for him to hear there is hope for the future—that these kinds of situations are part of growing up but will get better.
I like to think of parents as being their child’s first and best life coach. In many areas, parents help the most by showing their support and acceptance, but also showing how to improve social relationships.
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About the author
About the author
Patricia Flanagan, LCSW has extensive experience working in early intervention programs as well as mental health and public school settings.