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Tweens and Teens

Socialization in Teens

Practical Skills to Encourage Social Confidence

October 01, 2009
Dear Diary: We started volleyball in gym today. The teacher made us pick teams and I got picked last again. What's wrong with me? I hate gym. I hate school! I just wish I had a friend."

Having friends and "fitting in" can feel crucial to preteen children and is often their main measure of self-worth. If they think they are coming up short in the friend department, their world can feel unbearable.

As preteens approach adolescence, they gradually begin to separate from their families, turning instead to their friends for close relationships, support and their sense of identity. Kids who are looking for answers to the question, "Am I okay?" will trust the input they get from their peer group above all else. (Family doesn't count; they "have" to love you.) Depending on who saves his a seat at lunch, invites his to a sleepover or talks to his at the bus stop, a preteen's self-image may soar or crumble.

While every child has his social ups and downs, those who struggle socially or have a hard time making friends may need some extra help and support. Since they may not come to you directly with their insecurities, watch for signs of isolation, frequent tears or sadness or repeated anxiety around social situations. If your child often feels left out or lonely, you can help his gain confidence through direct and indirect means.

Talk about it. If your child is willing, let him share his feelings of self-consciousness with you. Assure him that his thoughts are confidential and that you want to help him find a way to make things better. Telling stories about similar problems in your own childhood can help to break the ice and also normalize his experience.

Combat helplessness. Tell your child that while some things are out of his control, there are still many steps he can take to make changes. Friendships are formed and sustained partly through chemistry and partly through conscious effort. Social skills can be learned and practiced, courage can be gathered to enable risk-taking, and situations can improve if a child feels empowered rather than victimized.

Evaluate the problem. Watch your child interact with others or talk with him about where the difficulty lies. Is he afraid to approach other kids? Is he tongue-tied or overbearing? Is he self-conscious about something in particular? Are other kids making fun of him for some reason? When specific obstacles can be identified, there is a better chance of overcoming them.

Make a plan and follow through. Brainstorm with your child on ways to combat each obstacle. Then set small, achievable goals. If your preteen lacks conversational skills, practice "small talk" with her. If he tends to come on too strong, offer practical examples of how to give others more space. Role-playing various situations with you can give him the courage to use these new skills with his peers. Set weekly goals such as, "I will raise my hand in class two times," or, "I will say 'hi' to the girl who sits next to me in math." Offer lots of praise when he achieves his goals. If he doesn't, encourage him to reevaluate and try again.

Offer specific, concrete advice. Adults know that "be yourself" may be the wisest advice for those seeking friendships, but a pre-adolescent child is operating on a different cognitive and emotional level and needs guidance that is more practical. He may need detailed suggestions about when, where and how to approach a potential friend. He may need a list of possible opening lines or conversational responses. Reminding him that he is loved and valuable no matter how many friends he has is important, but he still needs to know exactly what to do next if Ashley says "no" when he asks to carry her books.

Accentuate your child's strengths. A boost of self-esteem in any area can contribute to social confidence. Find the areas in which your child excels and build them into his life, including a social element whenever possible. A pet-loving kid can take his dog to an obedience class; an avid reader can join a book club at the library; a pianist can take lessons in a group instead of individually. It can be easier to take social risks in a setting where he is already comfortable, with kids who share his interests.

Explore new avenues for friendship. While school is generally the main place kids meet one another, it is not the only one. Any healthy peer relationship that your child develops can be a positive experience, encouraging him to try again. If he relates well to a particular cousin, the son of your co-worker, or a child from your old neighborhood, give him opportunities to enjoy and develop that relationship. That may mean some extra driving, higher phone bills, or scheduling efforts on your part, but it could make a world of difference for a socially insecure child.

Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville, Illinois, and the stepmother of two, ages 25 and 29. He can be reached at 847-782-1722.

Lisa M. Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville, Illinois, and the stepmother of two, ages 20 and 24.
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