Do you remember when your sensitive/anxious pre-school child first entered into kindergarten? It was a tumultuous start because of the novelty of being in school, but it also came with new friends to play with, new interests, and new learning. As a sensitive (possibly anxious) parent of a sensitive/anxious child, you are learning as you go too. Each phase is exciting but a bit scary for the both of you.
As a parent of two sensitive/anxious children (ages 9 and 7), I have lived through the gender differences and the struggles of each child. My older child developed friendships easily with boys and girls alike. As time and grades went by, the boys slowly started to divide into groups, and these groups were not always accepting of the other groups.
In school, there are your athletes, your bright and creative children, the artistic ones, and other groups as well. In essence, our children begin to develop their identity, and are invested in it so much that they can't comprehend that someone else might have a different perspective or experience. Our little ones have big ears and eyes and are also listening and watching how we, the adults, are behaving towards people of different races, religions, sexual orientations, and other ways that we are different. Without us even saying a word, our children may hear our words and mimic our behavior, as subtle as it may be. This may manifest itself as preferences to "not want to play with the child whose mother has a head covering" for example.
This is also the time when the 'mean' children come out to play, literally. Very naturally, one child is louder, braver, stronger; a child who is not afraid to express his or her opinions and is able to manage criticism by discounting it, or by putting down and disempowering the criticizer. This child very quickly becomes perceives as the 'popular' one or the 'leader'. For girls, we know this person to be the Queen Bee; for boys, it is the Pack Leader.
With these new friendship pattern changes, our children are no longer interested in inviting every single one of their classmates to their birthday party. Instead, they invite the kids with whom there are commonalities. This is when we begin to see children being 'left out'. This is a painful experience not only for your child, but also for you as the parent who may be re-living your own childhood friendship challenges. As you are reading this, you may find yourself cringing, as you know the feeling and it stinks.
Although our anxious/sensitive children have a gift, an ability to understand another person's needs with a desire to nurture and comfort, it can be used against them during their elementary years. So, what to do as a parent? How do you handle your anxious/sensitive child's 'sensitivities' while also growing a resilient child? There are positive steps you can take.
Separate Out What's Yours from Mine
As you experience your child's social experiences, you will likely experience your own childhood and present social insecurities. Step One - separate out how you are feeling from how your child is feeling. Separate out your insecurities from how your child is interpreting the situation. Ask and listen but don't offer interpretations. Your child may not be hurting as much as you are.
Validate, but Don't Fix It
As a parents, we want to protect and fix our child's pain but doing so can lead to a child who struggles to brainstorm and just plain old 'figure it out'. Validate first (e.g., I'm sorry. It sounds like that was really tough), and light the fire (e.g., What do you think you can do?). If your child says, "I don't know", don't offer solutions. Sit with the "I don't know" for a little while. This is the hard part because you have to have faith. Ultimately, when the emotions come down, your child will be better able to come up with a potential solution. If your child is really struggling, offer two choices (e.g., "Do you think you can talk to your teacher or tell Johnny that you are upset?").
Sometimes, Mom Can't Make the Ouchies Better
That's another tough reality to swallow as a parent. If your child is not able to benefit from your support, you may want to reach out to your Guidance Counselor and explain the situation. Sometimes, a neutral party can help to elicit more problem-solving from your child, and even pull in another child with whom there is a conflict. Your Guidance Counselor can also work with your child to sharpen overall social skills.
Change, Change, Change
Over your child's elementary school years, know that his/her friendships will change. They will change once again in middle school, and a couple more times in high school. It's okay. Don't panic. It's not a reflection on you. You may need to make a pact with the parents that you've bonded with that if your children's relationship changes, yours will not. Support your child in understanding why the friendship has changed without placing fault or blame, while focusing on how interests or personality traits have evolved over time.
Be sure to read Dr. Matheis' article: Identifying Signs Of Anxiety In Children
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Date of original publication: March 14, 2016
Updated: March 14, 2016