Understanding Your Child’s Social Life

Rachel Breitweser ’03

The Punahou PFA recently hosted a parent talk with child psychologists Michael Thompson and Rob Evans, who offered insight on the motives and meaning of children’s social behavior.

When children are struggling socially

  • Ask questions rather than give advice.
  • When you’re about to intervene, ask yourself, “Would you have wanted your mom or dad to ask you questions about your social life when you were that age?”  
  • It’s important to listen. If your job is to fix it or manage a child’s social life, tension gets added to relationship. Although you may be trying to be helpful, there’s a risk you’re inadvertently communicating to your child that there is something wrong with them, that they can’t handle their situations.
  • Intervention is needed when there is a pattern of distress. Otherwise, you have to let them learn as they go.
  • Fortunately, bullying is on steep decline because schools are making efforts to educate students on how to recognize it and address it.
  • It is amidst loss, disappointment, frustration and failure when deep learning lessons happen. We hurt when our kids hurt, but if we insulate them, then we prevent this learning.

Why friends are so important to your child

  • Kids get up in the morning because of friends. Friends are an affirmation that kids are on this journey together.
  • Friendship is mutual and reciprocal, meaning a mom or a teacher can’t be friends with a child. Kids look for the eyes of another kid. You don’t have to teach your child about friendship. They already know.
  • If your child has a friend, he or she is good to go. Parents can help children find friend circles outside of school, like at summer camp or in local art studios.
  • Support your child’s friendship. Friends that can bandage their emotional wounds are more effective than parents who ask questions later.

How electronics affect social life

  • Has the internet increased cruelty because it disinhibits? Has it slowed children’s social development because there’s less face-to-face interaction? There has been no long-term, longitudinal evidence that shows that the internet is actually harmful. Text messages, for example, are the electronic form of passing notes in class, something universal to all older generations.
  • Know that you have the right to control kids’ access to electronics and media. You don’t have to let them have a phone in their bedroom at night, for example.
  • You also don’t have to “win them all” to make a difference. You can restrict access in the house, but your kids may still go elsewhere to get access. You cannot control everything they do, but at least you’re setting an example in your home, and that counts.

Michael G. Thompson, Ph.D. is a consultant, author and psychologist specializing in children and families. He is the supervising psychologist for the Belmont Hill School and has worked in more than 700 schools across the U.S., as well as in international schools in Central America, Europe, Africa and Asia. 

Robert Evans, Ed.D. is a clinical and organizational psychologist and the Executive Director of The Human Relations Service in Wellesley, Massachusetts. A former high school and preschool teacher, and for many years a child and family therapist, he has consulted in more than 1,700 schools throughout the U. S. and internationally, working with teachers, administrators and boards, and speaks widely at educational conferences.