Social Development and Bullying

Conflicts with Close Friends
So, let’s talk about those close personal friendships – kids will experience more conflicts with close friends than acquaintances. When our friend says something or does something to hurt our feelings it means a lot more than if a stranger did the same thing. I’m sure we can relate to that.
But, your child’s ability to resolve conflicts will mature as they grow older and these challenges are part of that maturation.

Babies and toddlers do not generally discriminate over the gender of their playmate, once children enter preschool they generally prefer to play with children of the same sex. However, outside of school, many will maintain opposite sex friendships. This is something to be nurtured and your child will value and enjoy it, particularly because she may not do this at school. Another nice component of these friendships is that they are not competing for friends, or clothing, but use your discretion because if it comes out at school that a girl came over Johnny’s house for a play date it could prove to be challenging for both children.

2nd Grade Development
2nd Graders: In terms of social and emotional development, seven-year-old second graders enjoy having friends and take pleasure in imitating the actions of friends and peers at school. This is the time that children are trying to achieve a sense of social identity. They define themselves by who they are friends with. But, they are becoming self-conscious too and while they typically prefer structure and routines, they may also choose to work or play independently. Children this age often choose to develop games with rules and are likely to treat peers with respect during play. Conversely, some kids like to make up their own rules and this can be frustrating to others. They also start to experiment more with handling their emotional and social lives independently; they show that they can take some initiative socially and that they have the capacity to understand others’ actions and feelings. But remember, boys and girls are different socially. My daughter is a second grader and will take the school directory into her bedroom with the telephone and call her friends! Before I know it she’s got 4 girls wanting play dates or sleep overs. Whereas, my sons will also initiate play dates, but usually have me call the parents.

When a first grader transforms into a second grader things can be just plain different.  The big hug and kiss goodbye at drop off becomes a rushed “Bye mom, see you later!”  You may wonder what happened to that big hug and kiss? I assure you, although you are no longer the center of their world, you are still their entire world.??Second grade marks the point where your child goes from being “your baby” to “your kid.”  Children in this age range are “making the transition from dependence to independence and from family-centered to school-centered focus. They have a life at school immersed in relationships with their peers and activities. But after school they can be emotional messes.

One of the most important ways to help your child shake off the stress of the social environment at school is to actively listen to whatever she chooses to share with you about her day.  Turn off all distractions, cell phone, radio, dvd screen and take the time to check in with your child. It is important to listen and respond without judgment, as this is your child’s time to unwind, explore and seek guidance regarding troubles she may feel toward her friends or teacher. Second graders watch and mimic their peers, and may struggle with feelings of insecurity.  So, whether they are able to explicitly state it or not, children of this age group need parental reassurance and affirmation.??Your second grader may not always be able to adequately express herself verbally, and that is perfectly normal for this age. Children do not typically talk about their disappointment, however, they get angry, cry easily, grab things from their siblings, call names, push, tell on one another, complain, whine, etc.  But underneath all the noise is usually a disappointment that is difficult, in terms of their emotional development, to handle by themselves. Children displace their emotions onto others when they cannot articulate what is going on. If you see this happening it may be important to acknowledge their behavior – they may not be ready to talk but it will register with them that you are paying attention. Parents need to be as patient as possible during this phase and know that sometimes simply being with them through their trials and disappointments, and responding without invalidation or judgment can make all the difference. 
All Children Experiment with Social Power

By the time your child is 4 or 5 years old, they may have discovered that excluding or teasing someone makes them feel powerful and they find this exciting. Kids at this age also test out their power to see what effect it might have. For example, a 4 year old might invite a group to go to the swings and wait and see how many follow. A 6 year old might start the “I hate John club,” or tell other kids not to be friends with Mary today. At 10, power plays occur over who has the most friends, or by “stealing” friends.

Children Care About Being Popular, but Friendship Rules
From about 1st grade through high school, being popular becomes important to many children. But friendship is the thing that endures. A friend likes you for who you are. While not being part of the “in crowd” can seem devastating to some, encourage your child to simply make good friends. You can help by inviting that friend over to spend quality time with your child.

Social Hierarchy in School
We cannot escape being ranked by our peers and put into some sort of grouping. Children are well aware that there is a social hierarchy at school. There are the “popular kids”, the “rich kids”, the “poor kids”, the “beautiful/handsome kids”, the “funny kids”, etc. There are also the “average kids” and the “controversial kids.” You get the picture. It can be very painful to think that our own children are being ranked in some way by the group.

Duke University conducted a recent research study in which they used generalizable categories of kids that makeup a typical classroom. They then came up with the following group names to describe the social hierarchy with-in the classroom.

Very Popular Kids: Very popular kids are generally “alpha males” and “queen bees” who may be the trendsetters, be more athletic, talkative, attractive or simply more socially savvy. These kids generally have social skills that naturally draw others to them to have fun, and are considered leaders in their group.

Accepted Kids: The majority of kids fall into this group. They are not “leaders,” but they have friends and are well liked. Accepted kids are generally smart and outgoing and not likely to be overly aggressive or disruptive in school.

Average or Ambiguous Kids: These kids are not ranked by their peers as very popular or unpopular but certainly have friends.

Neglected Kids: A small number of kids are truly neglected by their peers. These kids tend to be quiet, good students, but not actively social at all. Teachers often do not worry about them because they do well in school. While it takes a long time for these kids to make friends, research shows that they generally do have friends by middle school, but they need attention from parents and teachers.
Controversial Kids: These kids are often the class clowns, the are both liked and disliked. They are not invisible. For example, hyperactive boys can be considered controversial kids. Many boys will be attracted to their energy, but their impulsivity can be annoying as well. They are likable kids with embarrassing habits (like excessive nose picking), bullies who instill both fear and loyalty, and rebels who stand up to teachers and talk back.

(lastly)Rejected Kids: These are the kids at the highest risk for depression. They are the kids who come to school with their heads down and try to be invisible. They can become sad and withdrawn to avoid attracting attention or emotionally explosive if teased excessively; they can’t accept their rejection, but they make matters worse for themselves when they fight back. This is a stressful dilemma and can take its toll on a child’s mental health. Proactivity on your part is essential -

Remember, there is no friendship, or childhood, that won’t have its ups and downs, and most can be soothed with a sympathetic parent and some pro-active strategies. So what about the tough stuff, the dilemma we parents face?
We need to be vigilant and aware of the social climate in our child’s grade, stay tuned in to our child’s social life, check in with the teacher, and be the parent our children can trust to listen and feel safe with.

Normal Social Pain
There is a difference between normal social pain and children who are at serious social risk. Normal social pain is the sadness, anger, and jealousy that friendship brings; It is feeling hurt and ashamed for not being included. It is the pain associated with your best friend finding another best friend. It’s the dilemma of wanting to make a new best friend yourself. It’s the pain of occasional teasing. It’s when your child comes home and says ‘everyone was mean at school.’ It’s the nervous stomachache at the start of a school year. But it doesn’t persist every single day.

There are warning signs for children who are experiencing extreme social pain. For example, a child who never gets invited on play dates or birthday parties and never calls anyone themselves; a child who frequently gets stomachaches to avoid social situations; a child who is teased constantly or is constantly doing the teasing; or a child who regularly bullies or harasses other children. Most kids at some point experience social challenges. My point in discussing this is to alert you to the difference between what’s considered normal social pain and when you need to be concerned and intervene. Sometimes as parents we can become reactionary rather than thoughtful, or blow things out of proportion and make a situation worse than it needs to be.

There are many signs that a child is being bullied. Some classic signs to look for:

  • They come home with torn, damaged, or missing pieces of clothing, books or other belongings;
  • They have unexplained bruises, cuts or scratches;
  • They seem afraid of going to school or taking part in organized activities with peers;
  • They appear sad, moody, teary or depressed when they come home;
  • They frequently appear anxious and/or suffer from low self-esteem.
  • If you suspect your child is being bullied, remember it is your job to be your child’s advocate, so inform others and take action.

Bullying is aggressive and intentional. It is the number one social problem from pre-K through 12th grade and I believe it is an issue of morality more than anything else. Bullying can take on many different forms, such as, intimidation through exclusion and gesture, it can be physical, verbal (name calling, gossip), and persistent. However, any kind of child-on-child cruelty that is chronically humiliating to the victim is bullying. The connection between popularity, social dominance, meanness and cruelty is hard for a parent to understand, but it is no surprise to any teacher – the dynamic is plainly visible in the school.

When we think of bullying we may remember those movies where the bully is taking a kids lunch money every day or pushing a weaker kid around and challenging him to a fight, or the cruelty of movies, like Mean Girls and Heathers. That kind of bullying is rare. Most kids who are cruel to others are not physically big and tough. Instead, they often are super-popular students. These kids can wield power in an evil-intentioned way, and can influence bigger ‘bullies’ to pick on social outcasts. Girls and boys bully differently. Boys can be mean to one another, but the meanness is usually right there on the surface. One boy does something to provoke the other, they roll around hitting and kicking until the teachers pull them apart and send both of them to the principal’s office. One day later they may be sitting together at lunch – better friends than they were before. Provocation, leading to a violent response, followed by resolution. That’s the pattern with many boys. But that simple pattern is rare among girls. The surface of a girl fight can be silent and as smooth as marble – tension can arise so subtly that even the girls themselves sometimes can’t honestly tell you how it started. A violent response is seldom appropriate and seldom made, because the provocation may be hard to define: the girl might say, her friend ignored her in the hall when she said hello; then she sat with someone else at lunch who she knows hates me; to she made a sighing sound in English class after I spoke up in class like I had said something stupid. Tensions can simmer and build for weeks or months. Girls almost always bully girls within their social group. These girls are intimate enemies.

Girls often engage in "indirect or emotional bullying." While boys will call another kid a name to his face, girls are often less direct and more insidious. Girl bullies start rumors, call kids names behind their backs, and steal friends. In some cases, popular, well-dressed girls single out less sophisticated girls and tease them, or simply control a group by dictating what others can wear.

Cliques can get out of control. As kids get into 2nd or 3rd grade, they often cluster into close groups of friends. Many of these are not harmful, as it’s natural for groups of friends to form. But sometimes these groups define themselves by excluding others, and powerful social laws dictate who’s in or who’s out. Sadly, kids who are deemed "unpopular" and get rejected from a clique often don’t befriend each other, because it wouldn’t look "cool" to the rest of the group.
Dr. Debra Pepler did a study on elementary school age children and aggression. She found that the “nonaggressive” kids are far from saintly – they still threaten to withdraw their friendship, just not as often as the kids who are seen as “aggressive.” So the kids who are seen as non aggressive may simply be less savvy and lack the confidence to assert themselves as often.

It is recognized that aggressiveness is most often used as a means of asserting dominance to gain control or protect status. Aggression is not simply a breakdown or lapse of social skills. Rather, many acts of aggression require highly attuned social skills to pull off, and even physical aggression is often the mark of a child who is socially savvy, not socially deviant. Aggressive kids are not just being insensitive. On the contrary, the relationally aggressive kid is extremely sensitive. His attacks are subtle and strategic. He has to be socially intelligent, mastering his social network, so that he knows just the right buttons to push to drive his opponent crazy. These kids are learning about “coolness” and how to be attractive to other people.

This completely changes the game for parents. When parents attempt to teach their 7 year old daughter that it is wrong to exclude, spread rumors, or hit, they are literally attempting to take away from the child several useful tools of social dominance. This behavior is rewarded in peer groups – as a parent you can say “don’t do that” because the immediate rewards for the child are very powerful. As long as the child wants class status, the appeal of the reward outweighs the parent’s message. They know what their parents think of their behavior – they have been hearing it since they could walk…but they return to these behaviors because of how their peers react. They reward the aggressor with respect, awe and influence.

So, why don’t kids shun aggressive peers? Why are aggressive kids held in high regard?
Two reasons. First, aggressive behavior, like rule breaking, is seen as a willingness to defy adults, which makes the kid seem independent and older – highly coveted traits. Kids who follow the rules run the risk of being seen as a wimp.
The other reason socially aggressive kids can remain socially powerful is that, just as the less aggressive kids aren’t angels – the aggressive kids are not all devils either. When used correctly, kindness and cruelty are equally effective tools of power. Those who can master the right balance of the two become attractive to other kids, rather than outcasts. These children are often well liked by the teachers as well. The research suggests there are usually 1 in 10 or 1 in 6 kids that can master these social skills in every class.
The last study I wanted to share with you is – researchers thought that aggressiveness was the reaction to peer rejection, so we as a community have taken measures to eliminate peer rejection from the childhood experience. We have now orchestrated how our children will interact with other children – we have created the play date phenomenon, while filling our children’s schedules with after-school activities. We’ve segregated children by age – building separate playgrounds for the youngest children, and stratifying classes and teams. Unwittingly, we’ve put children in an echo chamber. Today’s average middle schooler has a whopping 299 peer interactions a day. The average teen spends 60 hours a week surrounded by a peer group and only 16 around adults. This has created the perfect storm for the need to have peer status and social importance. The more time peers spend together, the stronger the desire to have high social status, resulting in the hostility of one-upmanship. All those lessons about sharing and consideration can hardly compete. We wonder why it takes twenty years to teach a child how to conduct himself in polite society – overlooking the fact that we’ve essentially left our children to learn the social rules for themselves.

What Parents Can Do
The moment you’ve all been waiting for…While you can’t live your child’s social life for her, there are some things you can do to help — or help yourself stay out of the way.

1) Don’t worry so much. Trust the power of friendship. Most kids figure out how to handle their close friendships and circles of friends quite well. Most will get through some rejection and even betrayals without long-term ramifications, particularly when they have parents who are good listeners, but not fixers. Luckily the majority of our children, as they mature, do develop the skills to make good friendships possible. Even when kids go through serious social upsets, they heal from them, perhaps even learn from them, and will find new opportunities for friendship and group acceptance.

2) Meet and get to know the parents of your children’s friends (and enemies!) Invite them over! Have reasonable expectations about your child’s social skills. Children develop the ability to become more mutual, reciprocal and empathic over time. Many elementary school age kids don’t play well in groups, but do well in pairs. Most kids will be rejected by a few kids and be the rejecter.

3) Help your child value their friendships over popularity. You cannot make your child become a popular kid. But you can make sure your child has friends by inviting them over. Try not to get pulled into the popularity wars. Focus on nurturing friendships instead.

When children experience social rejection, we often experience it with them. But it doesn’t help when you dwell on it by asking excessive questions, or trying to figure it out for them. (This is called interviewing for pain) Keep in mind that best friends will get along, fight bitterly, and make up faster than adults. They are simply more flexible and resilient.
Encourage your child to solve social problems himself by asking him to problem solve, instead of telling him what to do. If your child complains about an incident at school or a problem with a friend, ask, What could you do, say, or try? ‘How did that work?’ ‘What else can you try?’

Only help when your child truly needs or asks for help. When this happens, you might simply ask "What would you like me to do to help?" (or make a direct suggestion to a younger child, like "Would you like to talk to Billy with me?") Try to help your child figure out his own solution. If your child has trouble verbalizing his feelings, you might help by putting words to them, like "I wonder if you are feeling left out" without imposing your feelings on the situation.

Dissect the power struggles. If your child gets teased, bullied, or rejected, try to help your child find perspective on the behavior. Instead of saying, "That kid is so mean," or getting into the details of who did what, you might say, "How does this person get so much power?" or "What gives her the power to do that?" In this way you are naming the behavior, raising awareness of it, and helping your child disengage from the struggle. Consider both sides of a story. As much as you love and trust your child, you should listen to both versions of a conflict if it’s one that needs your intervention or assessment.

4) Honestly assess your child’s social skills. Is he or she young for his/her age? Does your child cheat? Does your child have difficulty controlling his impulses? Does your daughter tattletale? Is your child socially anxious, shy, avoidant? This could be a sign of something that needs professional intervention, this includes excessive worry or fears.
Know where your child stands in the group. Support moral behavior for your popular child and help with social skills for the struggling child.
Take the long view. Realizing that a run of unhappy social interactions does not doom your child’s future social life. Do not catastrophize, instead reflect with your child on what happened and what, if anything, could have been done differently.
My Soapbox
1)We need to be teaching our children how to treat others.
2) It has to start in the home. It has to start with the parents. We model how to have relationships and friendships. We teach by example everyday – they are watching us very carefully.
3) It has to spread to the teachers, and any other adult presence that enters a young person’s life.
4) We need to empower our children to think wisely, and to tread carefully and compassionately where others are considered.

Talk with a professional. If a school conflict is really big, encourage your child to talk with their teacher. Make a family appointment with the school or a family psychologist.
Figure out if your child is at risk. Describe what you observe, find out what they see, and get some advice on how to help. Ask the teacher to be direct if she perceives there is a problem. If this is a group teasing issue, ask the school about group actions. If warranted, consider some therapy for your child and yourself.

As long as there are large numbers of children and a small number of adults, we are putting our children in a group situation where they run the risk of being marginalized, teased, and tormented. All schools need to take a stand against cruelty and exclusion, it’s a big job. We need to make all our schools safe places for all children.

At the end of the day, what matters most is you. Keep everything in perspective and emotionally reflective – Our reward is the feeling of satisfaction when we go to sleep at night knowing we have the love of our family, good friends and hope in our hearts for a good school day tomorrow…



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