“Kelsey wanted to play house at recess, but Fiona wanted to play tag.” My first grade daughter is talking a mile a minute about the drama that unfolded at recess today.
“Fiona said that anyone who plays house is a baby. I kinda wanted to play tag and I kinda wanted to play house, but I went with Fiona because I didn’t want to be called a baby.”
Her expression saddened, “Now Kelsey said she won’t be my friend anymore.”
I couldn’t believe it. She is only in first grade, and there is already social pressure and drama among groups of kids at school.
Like many parents, my first instinct is to jump in and solve the problem. I hate seeing my children sad or uncomfortable. I hate to think that they may be bullied or picked on when I’m not there to protect them.
Unfortunately, solving the problem for them puts them at a disadvantage. It leaves our kids unprepared to navigate the crazy and unpredictable world of social drama when we’re not around.
Instead, we need to empower our kids by giving them strategies to use in difficult social situations. Michelle Anthony and Reyna Lindert, authors of Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-proof Girls in the Early Grades offer a clear plan for empowering our girls to deal with social drama in early grades:
- Observe: Take time to pay attention to your child’s behavior, mood, body language, facial expression and demeanor as they go through the day. Watch how she plays with certain friends vs. other friends. Listen to how she tells a story or talks about an event. Focusing on observations will help you determine when something is “off” or when things don’t seem quite right. It will make it easier to trust your gut instinct and pick up on cues that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.
- Connect: Like observing, connection is an ongoing skill that can be part of your everyday routine. Talk with your daughter, ask open-ended questions about her day or her friends, and then listen to her responses. Use active listening — paraphrase her story and put feeling words to what you hear her saying (“Wow, that sounds very lonely” or “What a tricky situation you were in! You must have felt stuck!”). Use non-verbal cues, such as nodding while she’s talking so she knows that you are listening.
- Guide: Once you’ve learned all you can about the challenging social situation, it’s time to brainstorm solutions. While it may be tempting to solve the problem for your child, use this time to teach her about the dynamics of friendship, explore the different aspects of the situation and think about possible solutions. Remember, this is guiding, not forcing. The goal is to empower your child to come to her own conclusions.
- Support to Act: Once you have a list of possible solutions, it’s time to encourage your child to choose the one that feels most comfortable to her. You may not always agree with her decision. Rather than discourage her choice, your job is to help her weigh the pros and cons and think through the consequences. Role play different scenarios and help her practice how to respond. Give her your support and encouragement as she makes this step, celebrate her victories and return to connection if it doesn’t go as planned.
Things to keep in mind as we empower our kids to make choices:
- Start Early: Don’t wait until a problem pops up to start talking about friendships. Build it into your day, play it out with Barbies or stuffed animals, and model it with your own friendships. Talk about what makes a good friend, practice problem solving strategies, and find ways to build your child’s self-confidence.
- Take it slow: Your children are not automatically going to come up with fantastic ideas for handing social drama. It’s going to take time for them to build a library of resources to choose from. This is why connecting and guiding are key. Kids are much more receptive to suggestions when they feel loved and supported. Demanding or forcing them to do it your way will shut down communication and discourage brainstorming.
- Get Help: You do not have to be your child’s only support. Seek help from other family members, teachers, school counselors, or mental health therapists. Watching your child go through difficult social situations may bring up difficult memories from your own past. It may be helpful to find your own support so you can be fully present to help your child.
- Safety First: If you believe that your child is in danger, intervene immediately.
It is challenging to watch my daughter struggle through friendship trouble at such a young age. I still have to fight the urge to fix it and make it go away, but I am thankful for my role as her guide for now. I am excited to watch her become more confident as a friend, and more importantly, as a person.
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