My child feels unpopular. How can I help?

Being part of a group is very important to pre- and early adolescents. They spend a great deal of time thinking about their popularity and the main factors that affect it—personality, athletic skills, talents, and looks: “Will Scott invite me to his party?” “Am I as pretty as Lisa?” “Is Ian going to make the team instead of me?” “Who will I walk to school with?” “Will Samir like me if he knows I’m friends with Joey?”

Kids constantly weigh their relative positions in a group. Since friendships can shift at these ages, a child may feel liked one week and rejected the next. Sometimes children who have been best friends through much of elementary school drift apart because of differing interests and developmental changes. If one joins a new group, the other may feel temporarily alone. A pair of friends may be broken up by a third child who bonds with only one of the original two. In some cases, a child may be deliberately targeted by school or neighborhood bullies.

Most kids, however, don’t intend to be cruel. They simply aren’t thinking about the consequences of ending friendships, but instead concentrating on their own interests and desires to be liked.

Parents have mixed reactions to their child’s worries about popularity. At times they’re impatient with concerns about trivial incidents: “I’m sure Beth still likes you. It doesn’t matter if she says hi to Anne first.” They know that these kinds of issues come and go.

However, parents suffer along with their child when he feels truly rejected. They’re upset by his hurt feelings, anger, and confusion. Yet, they can’t make the situation better, as they could during earlier years with a phone call to another parent or an invitation to a new friend. Parents can say, “Call someone else from your class,” but they can’t force others to accept their child and they can’t create friendships for him.

What they can and should do is listen and offer reassurance and help. A child who’s vulnerable needs a great deal of support, and if he doesn’t get it from his parents, he won’t get it at all. They must remind him that he’s worthy of friendship and love and that he’ll get through these tough times.

When your child talks about feeling unpopular, be a sympathetic, understanding listener. If he expresses inevitable doubts about his place in the group, help him put his experience in perspective: “Everybody has an occasional bad day when they play baseball. I’m sure your friends didn’t mean to insult you.”

If he describes deeper hurt, first offer comfort and remind him of his strengths: “This is a hard time for you. But you’re a great kid and I know you’ll make new friends.” Pay enough attention to his friendships so that you know when things aren’t going well. If he doesn’t talk about social problems, raise the subject yourself: “I notice Nick doesn’t call here anymore. Are you two still friends?” “It’s hard to talk about feelings, but I’d like to help you.” Share stories about your experiences while growing up: “I know how you feel about Josh. There was a really popular cheerleader named Sandy in my class and I was jealous of her and wanted to be friends at the same time.”

If you think he’s losing friends because of negative behavior, let him know that he has to be less aggressive and self-centered, and generally nicer to people: “You need to listen to other kids’ suggestions more often.” “Don’t be so tough on your friends.”

If shyness is keeping him from joining a group, have him invite friends over individually. You also can help him focus on hobbies and organized activities he enjoys. That way he can meet people with similar interests and start new friendships with kids who are more like him.

Talk to him about why kids exclude each other and why friendships change. He should understand that former friends probably didn’t mean to hurt his feelings—they just developed new interests. Likewise, if your child has given up some of his own friendships, help him see what the consequences may have been. If you think that he’s mistreating others because they’re unpopular, demand that he change his behavior. Explain how it feels to be ostracized, and don’t accept excuses for his actions. If you find him consistently acting out and bullying, you probably need professional guidance.

You also may need help if your child is the one being deliberately excluded or picked on. Try to find out what’s going on and why he’s a target (since some kids “invite” bullying). Contact his teachers if you think that will make a difference, consistently give him help and encouragement, and get professional advice if you believe that emotional problems are either causing or resulting from his lack of popularity.

It’s become impossible to discuss even the most ordinary issues of unpopularity without at least mentioning the tragic cases of school violence associated with a pre-teen or teenager’s sense of isolation and anger. While news about these frightening incidents receives a great deal of attention, the events are extremely rare. The real lesson for everyone is that parents—and not schools–play the most important day-to-day role in how kids act, feel about themselves, and treat others. It’s appropriate to expect teachers to set and enforce limits on all students and to encourage inclusiveness. But realistically, parents are the ones who have to stay on top of what’s going on, teach responsible behavior, and be active advocates for their child.

Picture Credit : Google