When Your Child is Unpopular
As parents, we hope our children will have a wonderful school experience. We anticipate good grades, lots of friends and involvement in extra-curricular activities. But this is not always the case. There are some children whose awkward stages seem to begin or end sooner than others.
It could be a physical characteristic. Your child may be shorter, taller, heavier, thinner, or more or less developed. It could be that your child is more serious about academics than his peers or he has a harder time focusing and needs extra help. Any number of reasons can cause a child to be deemed "unpopular."
As adults, we know it is only a single phase in life and in the grand scheme of things, it won't matter. But as parents, we know that the pain our children feel is very real and they lack the ability to look that far into the future. So how do you help them?
Denise and Wayne Mitchell* have dealt with this issue on an intense level. Their daughter, Nicole*, has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
"Nicole is often singled out by adults because of her diagnosis and the behaviors that accompany ADHD. As a result, the other kids pick on her for being different," Denise Mitchell says. "When Nicole retaliates, the adult present -- parent or teacher -- will discipline Nicole before hearing both sides because they assume Nicole is the 'trouble maker.' The other kids know this, so the picking gets even worse. This makes Nicole feel like no matter how hard she tries or what she does, she will always be wrong. It's a constant battle against those feelings."
The Mitchells addressed the immediate problem by teaching Nicole that, while some children have bad manners, she should "try her best to keep her cool and remember to tell them that they aren't acting like they should." They also advised her to enlist the help of an adult when necessary.
"The main key to helping your child through this difficult time is communication," says Rebecca Flynt, a child and family therapist in Mocksville, N.C. who counsels children with popularity issues. "It all goes back to that, whether it be discussing options for handling particular situations, communication between you and your child's school -- teachers, guidance counselors, administration -- or being available to listen when your child needs to talk. Communicating is the most important thing you can do."
Flynt also recommends addressing your child's self-esteem. "If your kid is being teased, make sure he/she knows that what's being said to them isn't true. They need to hear that comment unsubstantiated," Flynt says. "You may even try some role-playing. Go over what happened and ask your child what he or she may have wanted to do or say differently to help them prepare to handle the next situation should another occur."
Flynt also recommends spending daily, focused time with your child. "It is important to spend time with your kids every day, even if it is only 15 minutes. Set aside a special time that centers around what they want to do, modifying your schedule to theirs. Tell them how important it is to you to have that time every day and that will increase their self-esteem by leaps and bounds."
Preteenagers have a natural tendency to withdraw somewhat from their parents. It is a trademark of puberty and quite normal. However, if your child is shy or is getting teased at school, he or she may withdraw even further. Gauging what is normal behavior versus warning signs for developing serious depression can be difficult. But the following symptoms may mean your child needs professional assistance:
- Causing intentional harm to self
- A drastic drop in grades
- Major behavior changes
- Appetite changes
- Sleep disorders (sleeping all day or unable to sleep)
Some signs tend to be more subtle, but can add up to a potentially serious bout with depression.
Building strong, meaningful relationships can protect your child's mental and emotional well being and soften the blow of cruel remarks. "Having just one or two close friends seems to immunize a child from any lasting effects of social rejection," says Sandy Sheehy, author of "Connecting: The Enduring Power of Female Friendship." "Parents often place too much emphasis on popularity ... Providing the time, space, and transportation for the child to get together with one or two close friends is a far better investment in his or her current and future well being."
Yet to build healthy friendships, your child must first understand the definition of "friend."
"You can help your child define what a true friend should be in several ways," Flynt says. "Be a good role model. Ask what being a good friend means to them. What do they think good friends should do for each other? When there is a disagreement with a friend, ask how things might have gone differently and how things could be resolved. See who is to blame, one party or both?"
If you help your children to build healthy relationships and to recognize their value, they will learn to set their own standards. Popularity is a matter of subjective opinion. Being unpopular at school doesn't mean your child cannot be happy and secure in the love of family and true friends.