There is little more upsetting than seeing your child upset, especially when their unhappiness has been caused by their peer and friendship group. It is the one thing that can trigger your tiger instinct to protect your cub. Your first impulse maybe to confront the child or children that have caused your child’s distress and challenge their behaviour; however, you are an adult and they are, after all, just children. You need to deal with the situation with a clear head – and keep that tiger in the cage and emotions in check.
I was aware of the tiger, but not of the cage.
The first time I became aware of an issue between my child and some of his classmates was when he wouldn’t go to the park after school. It was a beautiful day and he wanted to stay at home. This was most unusual – ordinarily he was desperate to go out and play. I thought he was sickening for an illness, so I didn’t push it. But when it happened the next, and then the next afternoons, the penny dropped that there was something more going on.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing: you have 20/20 vision and can see clearly how the dots have joined to complete the picture. There had been a couple of parties that surprisingly my son hadn’t been invited to, a change of attitude to sports practice and a gradual shift in attitude about the home – which I had prematurely signed off as teenage hormones kicking in.
Signs that your child is unhappy
Your child may not want to tell you directly about what is going on in their world, but there are behavioural signs to look out for beyond ‘traditional’ indicators such as broken or missing possessions and unexplained bruises:
Changes in temperament – more moody, aggressive or tearful
Changes in sleep pattern and/or having nightmares
Not wanting to go to school
Not wanting to take part in a much-loved activity
Not performing as well academically
Complaining of stomach aches and/or headaches
Why hadn’t my son told me about the escalating problems with his peers? We have a close and open relationship, but he couldn’t tell me what was going on?
Revert to the first paragraph. My tiger instinct is exactly why he felt that he couldn’t tell me about the issues that were affecting him, and he was right. I initially handled the situation badly.
Tactics to Avoid
I grilled him to see if there was anything that was upsetting him, I checked his mobile phone, his social media and messages. I found messages showing how the boys were orchestrating a social media campaign with my son at the epicentre.
I contacted one of the parents of the children involved, a friend of mine, and alerted her to the messages that her son had written in a group chat. It didn’t go to plan. I had wrongly assumed that by talking to the parent about the messages I had found that the issues would magically stop. It was only through sheer luck that my son’s problems didn’t escalate, and they merely continued: he felt further alienated by the group ‘your mum did what?’.
My desire to find out the cause of my son’s upset had made him feel like he was to blame. I had interrogated him to find out the finer details: what had he done to provoke them? What had he said? What had he done. I had inadvertently blamed the victim – my own child.
We were back to square one. The lesson I learnt? You don’t need a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.
Instead, I needed to take a different approach to my child’s situation: to encourage the walnut to grow and become strong and thrive. Besides, I am not with my son 24/7; he needed to learn and develop the tools to help him manage the situation now and equip him to successfully deal with any future issues.
How to Help Your Child Through Peer Issues
Children open up when they are relaxed, and there is little to distract them, or you – a long car journey, or when they are helping you to paint the fence, for example. By creating a low-key environment for conversation, you are not adding additional diverting elements into the arena. Instead, you are providing a calm, safe space and opportunity for them to share their thoughts and feelings in their own time.
When your child does tell you their feelings? Acknowledge their feelings and be mindful of your reactions.
Avoid the clichés of:
Just hit them back
Pretend you don’t care
Just ignore it
By sharing their story, your child is on the first step of learning about conflict resolution! The fact that you have listened to them, let them speak and not told them how they should have reacted gives a strong message of support.
Encourage your child to articulate their feelings; we often assume that their definition of words matches ours. Ask open ended questions that can help to explore and define their feelings. How did that make you feel? What do you think you could have done differently to get a better outcome?
Behaviour follows patterns, and unless we are proactive in changing our responses to others’ actions, the pattern continues. Inspiring your child to change how they respond to peer group disagreements begins with owning their emotions.
Talking through issues helps your child see the situation from a different perspective and take ownership of their feelings and reactions. Taking responsibility for their own happiness is incredibly empowering. Your child has no control over how others behave, but they do have control over their responses – they don’t have to feel helpless.
Encouraging your child to own their emotions helps to shift their position from victim to active agent! My son’s experience of tears, anger and emotional pain was being supported by my comfort and keeping him in a cycle of blame, fuelling the mindset of a victim. Life is full of events and circumstances that we have no control of, and yet how we interpret them defines the outcome.
Empowering your child to take ownership of feelings helps to develop their emotional intelligence, resilience and understanding the concept of consequences. However, emotion ownership alone is not enough, you need to couple it with a positive mental attitude to boost their self-esteem.
Do you see the glass as half full or half empty? It can be hard to reframe negative situations into positives, but your life view will shape your child’s. Children are very good at picking up their parents’ attitudes and moods - both of which are contagious. In 2016, the University of Washington undertook research that established than preschoolers, around the age of five, have an established sense of self-esteem that is rooted from home: parents’ attitudes matter!
By nature, I am a hothead, and it was a bitter pill to swallow when I realised that the example I had been giving my son was to react first and think later. To begin with I struggled with consciously being more rational and in control of my reactions. It takes eight weeks for a habit to form, so within those eight weeks I did a lot of counting to ten, but with perseverance it became second nature.
This doesn’t mean that you must pretend that life is rosy – work, financial and relationship issues all impact on our moods, but think about how you deal with challenges and the language that you use when you discuss them. How you deal with stress is how your child learns to. Leave defeatist, negative talk at the door, and use the challenges that you face to demonstrate to your child:
How to problem solve.
To be active in taking control of difficult situations.
No difficult situation is permanent.
Our self-esteem originates from our attitude towards life, and so spending time to reinvigorate a positive mental attitude is crucial to boosting damaged self-esteem. The partnership between self-esteem and attitude defines who we are: attitudes are how we feel about life, and self-esteem? How we feel about ourselves.
The dip in my son’s ability to cope with his peers came at a time of family bereavement, and we all suffered during this period, but his self-esteem was slowly spiralling downwards. Low self-esteem can manifest in several ways and is more than likely a contributor to peer group issues. Does your child display any of the following behaviours?
Constantly comparing themselves to others – positively or negatively (tick)
Negative self-talk (tick)
Fear of failure (tick)
Trying to fit in (tick)
Being excessively defensive when faced with any criticism (tick)
Avoiding situations (tick)
Self-esteem is more than just feeling great about yourself, it’s about being comfortable in your own skin: recognising your flaws and being proactive to improve them. We live in a world where perfection is expected – but that is unrealistic!
It’s okay not to be perfect – nobody is!
It’s okay to have different opinions.
It’s okay to make mistakes – as long as you learn from them.
So how can you develop your child’s self-esteem?
You may be tempted to over praise your child to boost their self-esteem, but this is not helpful. By over zealously praising your child you give them a false belief in their abilities and dilutes the worth of praise and effort. Give praise where it is due; be specific about what your child has done well. Rather than a generic ‘your painting is the best’, give a reason ‘I love the way you have included the detail on the tree’ – this demonstrates that praise is genuine and not a stock phrase.
When you give your child the option to make choices, you are empowering them. Even something as simple as letting them choose from your pre-selected options what they want for breakfast. You are showing them that you trust and respect their judgement.
By giving your child age appropriate household chores, you build their confidence to be competent. Who knew that helping to mow the lawn could instil pride and a sense of teamwork? Everybody likes to be valued!
There is no quick fix to reestablish your child’s position in the peer group. It takes time to readjust your child’s view of themselves and the world that they inhabit. Action should not just be taken at crisis point but continued for the everyday. Spending time with your child, encouraging them to explore their feelings and what they can learn from them, equips your child with valuable tools that they will carry with them through adulthood.
Learning how to deal with people who may not share your viewpoint is a skill.
During our children’s early years, we can control their life experiences: where they go, who they talk and interact with, and we are present to guide them to take appropriate actions to any conflicts that arise. The company that you choose for your child to keep is typically with people who will help to nurture and develop them.
However, once your child starts school to begin their journey of independence, they meet new characters and personalities and experience fresh situations that have not been moderated by parents. It’s nail-biting stuff – not only for your child, but for you too as you watch from the sideline, but armed with a positive mental attitude, empathy and self-esteem, your child will be able to successfully navigate through the challenges that life throws at them. Good luck!