Parenting with a Ph.D, Kids and Social Problems: Step In or Step Back?

By Kristen S. Berthiaume, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist

Admit it – there have been times you’ve followed the name of one of your child’s peers by a long string of not-nice words in your head.  Or, maybe out loud – hopefully quietly.  Recently, choice words sprang to mind when a classmate of my four-year-old told her she couldn’t play because she was “not on the list.”  My daughter was the new kid.  I momentarily worried this rejection would seal her social fate – maybe forever.  Then, I took a deep breath and stepped back.

Most of our children have experienced rejection from peers at some point.  For some, this is a rare and unexpected occurrence; for others, it has become pretty routine.  As hard as it may be to imagine, some peers simply aren’t going to like your kid.  (I know – it’s crazy, right?).  We hear horrific stories about the consequences of bullying and promise ourselves we won’t let those things happen to our kids.  But, in less extreme cases, it possible that too much protection will do more harm than good?

When to Step Back: Although you will probably be tempted to take action at the first tear, this may be a mistake.  As hard as it can be, sometimes allowing kids to work out their peer problems without assistance really is best.  Letting your child figure out how to maneuver in difficult social situations increases her resiliency, ability to handle conflict, and feelings of self-competency.  Remember – you won’t always be there to handle these situations.  Letting her practice when she has you to provide encouragement and guidance is a far better way to help your child in the long-run.  Go through multiple solutions with your child and consider potential consequences of each one.  Ultimately, let her pick what she wants to try first and talk about how it went and the next step after the fact.

When to Step In.  You’ll know it’s time to step in when teasing or rejection is going on in several settings (e.g., school, neighborhood, extracurriculars), when it’s happening repeatedly in the same setting, or when the harassment is severe (e.g., physical bullying).  If your child is being bullied, you may need to get teachers, coaches, and other parents involved.  Often, children are told to ignore bullying on the assumption that the aggressor will lose interest and find a new target.  Some problems with this approach are: 1) It’s tough for a kid to have absolutely no reaction to being bullied (just think how hard it is for you as a parent!); 2) No response might be interpreted by those bullying as weak, making future incidents even more likely; and 3) Telling a child to do nothing can send him the message that he is powerless or deserves the treatment.  A more effective response involves addressing the bullying directly and involving key adults who can monitor and step in when it’s occurring.

What if My Kid is the Bully? This is a very tough position for parents but it’s imperative you not stick your head in the sand.  Without intervention, children are unlikely to stop bullying because it can be socially rewarding.  You’ll need to tell your child that his behavior is not acceptable and make clear the consequences for future incidents.  Work out a plan with other adults in your child’s life for identifying, stopping, and disciplining the bullying.  Seek treatment for your bullying child with a therapist who can work with him on learning empathy, or the ability to understand others’ viewpoints and feelings.  Ask your child’s therapist about ways you can continue teaching empathy at home, like talking about feelings characters in T.V. shows might be having (that’s what the DVR Pause button is for!).  Most importantly, check your own behavior.  Are you empathic when you interact with your child?

Imagine my surprise at pick-up yesterday when the classmate, the one whose list my daughter  wasn’t on, gave her a big hug goodbye.  Turns out, there is more than one list – sometimes my daughter’s on it, sometimes she isn’t.  Welcome to the rest of your kid’s social life.

We need more help!  If social issues are a routine part of your child’s daily life, one of the best forms of treatment is group social skills therapy.  In my social skills group, for example, we work on a variety of issues from having conversations to calming down when angry to dealing with bullying.  Check with your child’s school to find out whether it’s offered.  Some local options include:
Grayson and Associates, P.C. – 205-868-6702;  New group starts mid-August
Child’s Play Therapy Center – 205-978-9939;
Mitchell’s Place (for children with diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Disorders) – 205-957-0294;

About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way, via email and I’ll tell you what I can. Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general.  If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published.  Submitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy.  If you feel  you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional.  Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

Kristen Berthiaume is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates.  She obtained her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky.  She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center.

She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues:
learning disorders
social skill deficits
organizational problems
behavioral difficulties

She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy.  Her other day job is as mom to her four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son.

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