How to Help Your Child Navigate the Social PlaygroundI’ll never forget my first round of Parent-Teacher interviews as a new teacher. I had meticulously organised all of my students’ assessment data. I was ready to impress their parents with my knowledge of their child’s learning abilities. When the parents got a chance to ask questions, every single parent asked questions around the same theme:

Is my child happy?

Do they have friends?

Do they play nicely with other kids on the playground?

Yes, they were concerned about whether their child could read, write and do arithmetic. But my pre-child inexperience had led me to completely underestimate how much a parent’s concern revolves around their child’s social wellbeing. (It’s actually a bit embarrassing to type that.)

Happily, the answer for most parents was that their kid was absolutely fine. Not fine every single minute of every single day, but overall just fine. For some parents all of the time, however, and for all parents some of the time, their child is not going so well. The social playground is vast and confusing. A child might struggle with friendships, they might feel unable to stand up for themselves, they might not like what the other kids like. So, what can you do if your child is having social issues in the classroom or on the playground?

Here are some of the suggestions I share with parents (now that I’ve had kids and years of teaching experience!).

1. Help your child identify the problem. Sometimes younger children can have difficulty identifying why friendships aren’t working. Listen closely and check with your child to see if you understand what the problem is.“It sounds like you’re feeling sad and mad because you weren’t included in the game at lunchtime. Is that the problem?”

2. Talk about the feelings involved. We need to listen to our children and validate their feelings. Reflect what you hear. “It sounds like you’re feeling _____ because _______.”

3. Help your child brainstorm solutions. Avoid telling your child what to do in the situation. Instead, help him to become a problem-solver. Brainstorm together lots of alternative ways for improving the situation.

4. Help your child to choose a solution. After you’ve brainstormed a variety of solutions, help your child to evaluate the consequences of some of those ideas. “What might happen if you do that? Would that help to solve the problem for you?”

Encourage your child to select the solution most pleasing to her (even if it’s not the solution you would choose!). This helps your child to take ownership of the situation.

5. Role play social situations. Once you have worked through the situation, you could ask your child to role play what has happened and what he would like to have happened. This gives your child the chance to practice what he hopes to say and do in these situations.

6. Capitalise on “teachable” moments. If you observe interesting social situations between your child and other children at the park, on play dates or after school, make sure to discuss these and debrief your child. Reflection is an important social skill.

How to Help Your Child Navigate the Social Playground

7. Model sentence starters. Often children don’t have the expressive language to navigate difficult social situations. We can help them by modelling appropriate sentence starters. “I feel _____ when you ______.” Or they may need some practise with approaching social situations: “Hi! This looks like a fun game! Do you mind if I join in? What are the rules?”

8. Share picture books about friendships. Sometimes children don’t feel comfortable talking about their friendship problems.Picture books provide a safe place for children to explore the friendship problems of others.Picture books are a perfect way to get the discussion started. Try these books:

9. Play board games. Many playground grievances happen over skills that can be practiced with board games! Board games provide a way to model turn-taking, sharing and fair play. Some fun games to try include:

10. Involve children in family discussions and decision-making. By involving children in the family decision-making process, they have the opportunity to learn about compromise.

11. Be a role model. Children learn by observing. Show your child what good and healthy friendships look like by surrounding yourself with good friends. Discuss with your child why you enjoy these friendships and what makes these friendships solid. Chat about the values that you look for in a friend.

12. Encourage your child to have a wide network of friends. A child who moves between a variety of social networks has many opportunities to build up their social resilience. Joining a group like Scouts or a sporting team away from school will help your child meet a variety of kids.

13. Don’t ask “How was your day?” as soon as you see your child after school. School days are action-packed. Often it takes a child awhile to decompress from the school day.Give them the time and space to process all that has happened throughout the day. Encourage conversation by asking specific, open questions like, “What was a happy moment in your day?” “Were there any sad moments in your day?”

14. Don’t confront the other kids. You’re responsible for guiding your child through tricky social situations, not the children of others.

15. Don’t ban friends. Tempting though it is to try to manipulate your child’s friendships, banning friends can actually make your child want to play with them more. Respect your child’s choices and gently steer him in the direction of alternatives if you just can’t help youself.

16. Don’t judge or criticise. Children shouldn’t have to navigate through tricky social situations alone. Your child needs your support and guidance, so be there for her without question or comment.

17. Foster empathy. Encourage empathy by asking your child to think about how other children in the situation might have felt.

Read more: If My Kids Learn One Thing in Life, I Want it to Be Empathy

18. Talk to your child’s teacher. With serious ongoing issues, make sure you chat with your child’s teacher. Together you can come up with a plan to help your child.

A wise teacher once said to me, “It’s not what you do for your child but what you let them do for themselves.” When your child comes to you with a social problem, it is only natural to want to shield them from pain and try to solve their problems for them.

However your child will learn more if, with your emotional support, they learn and develop the skills necessary to navigate different social situations on their own.

More about children’s friendships:

Image: Getty