Makeups and breakups, power plays and squabbles — your grade-schooler’s social life can be as dramatic as Game of Thrones. All the twists and turns can be tough on parents, too. Should you step in if your child is acting bossy during a playdate? Is it a bad sign if your kid doesn’t have a best friend?
Of course all parents want to protect their children from going through heartbreak, but before you jump in and try to fix things, consider this: Struggling through awkward social situations is how they learn, according to Meghan Broadstone, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist in Waltham, MA.
So when do you intervene — and how do you do it right? We asked moms and dads to spill the most difficult scenarios their children have faced and then went to the pros for their best advice. Help is on the way!
My third-grader and her friends are always gossiping. How do I make sure my daughter doesn’t become a mean girl?
If your gossip girl is chit-chatting in ways that may hurt a classmate, put a lid on it now, says Michele Borba, Ed.D., an educational psychologist. Choose some phrase (like “rumor alert!”) and encourage her to say it whenever a friend or family member (even you) sounds off with malicious intel. Remind her to think about how she would feel if her friends were talking about her in the same way — it’s a great way to teach empathy.
My 5-year-old bosses his friends around. How can I get him to tone it down?
First, make sure that his assertiveness is truly a problem, says Rahil Briggs, Psy.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “If other kids aren’t rejecting him, there’s not much for you to do,” she assures. It could be that your child simply has lots of great ideas and his friends actually don’t mind following his lead.
On the other hand, if you frequently notice your son’s friends griping after he offers a “suggestion,” you'll want to clue him in to it. Later on, once his friends have gone home, you might say, “Next time Jared doesn’t want to play the same game you do, what do you think you can do besides tell him he has to? Let’s think of a few things together.” That way, he’ll learn the art of give-and-take.
Long-term, you can also work on his cooperation skills by playing games together “so he learns to compromise, share, and wait his turn,” Briggs suggests. Also make sure every family member gets a fair say in decisions like weekend plans — so he sees democracy in action.
My 8-year-old daughter’s friends are all boys. Is that okay?
“Absolutely,” reassures Borba. Maybe your child shares more interests with boys at this point — or just wants to steer clear of gal-pal drama. Her opposite-sex playmates say nothing about her social adjustment (or her sexuality, by the way). Ditto if you’ve got a son who mostly plays with girls.
My kindergartner doesn’t have a best friend. Is he missing out on something important?
It’s never silly to want your child to have a good social life — but he doesn’t need a BFF for that. “As long as your son seems happy and has some confidence-boosting friends to develop social skills with, he’s fine,” says Borba. Keep in mind that even when little kids do have besties, their relationships are different from the ones you have with close pals. “This is an age when kids may go in and out of friendships as they learn more about themselves,” Borba points out. So wait: Your child may say that he has a best buddy next week. And a different one the week after — which is also normal.
My 4th-grader isn’t getting invited to parties very often. Should I be worried?
Keeping too close an eye on your kid’s party-going can be a good way to make yourself crazy, warns Briggs. Kids tend not to invite the whole class as they get older and more selective about friends.
If your child is feeling snubbed, you can help take the sting out of it by planning something special for the two of you to do the day of the party — like going to see a movie.
Separately, ask the teacher about how things are going for your child socially — is she regularly included in other kids’ activities? “If so, don’t worry about the party stuff,” Briggs says.
If the teacher says that your kid is a loner and unhappy about it, help her sharpen her social skills. Have the teacher point you toward potential pals, then invite them over.
My daughter’s best friend won’t play with her anymore. What can I do?
"This happens sometimes, and no matter what, it’s really hard,” says Broadstone.
While it’s tempting to say, “Well, you don’t need Allie anyway,” try not to. Instead, be sympathetic. Ask your child what she liked about being friends with Allie — and what she didn’t. You can also say, “Is there maybe something good about all this — like you’ll have a chance to play with some other kids?”
Doing this can help your child take a more balanced view of the relationship. “If the friendship had problems, you’ll help her recognize that this kid might not be what she wants in a friend anymore, either,” Broadstone says.
To get your daughter over the hump, schedule extra playdates for a few weeks. Remember, kids are resilient, and after a while, another friend will take Evil Allie’s place. (Yeah, you can call her that — but only in your head.)
My 7-year-old’s friend is a bad influence. He always breaks our house rules. Should I discourage the friendship?
Instead of banning the friend altogether, which may just increase his naughty appeal, gradually cut back on their get-togethers, says Jephtha Tausig-Edwards, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Nantucket, MA. And be sure to share your reasons: “I’ve noticed that you’re mean to your sister when Quinn comes over.”
At the same time, whenever your child’s buddy does come to play, spell out the house rules with both of them. If they keep blowing them off, you’ll then have grounds to go ahead and calmly tell your child that while he can hang out with this particular friend at school, the friend unfortunately can’t keep coming to visit your home.
My 1st-grader’s friend brags a lot. How can I help her deal (without being rude back)?
Help your child see boastfulness for what it is, suggests Borba. “Say, ‘Why do you think Chris talks like that? Sometimes when people brag a lot, it’s to get attention. Let’s figure out how you can respond when he does that.’” Then brainstorm a gracious reply that can cut a bragging streak short. “It could be ‘It’s great you scored that goal, but I had a great game, too!’ and then your child could simply walk on,” Borba says. Once the bragger sees he’s not getting a rise out of your kid, he’ll move on to someone else — or, better still, get a clue and quit it.