How to help your child handle five tough social challenges.
girl feeling left out
Credit: Shannon Greer

Your child, once perfectly happy with her made-by-mom playdates, is beginning to develop a social life of her own. Get ready for a wild ride! Although little kids will play with pretty much anyone, 6- to 8-year-olds can be picky about whom they hang with. "Children this age are no longer under the watchful eye of a parent or teacher, so there's a lot more freedom in how they interact with their friends," says Lawrence Cohen, PhD, coauthor of Mom, They're Teasing Me. "They're also testing their social skills and discovering who they are and how they relate to the world." All this adds up to a new and challenging scene -- for you too! No worries. We're here to guide you through these common school-age dilemmas.

Social Challenge: My son refuses to wear a coat 'cause it's not cool. Who says? Everyone!

The peer pressure is really heating up now. But before you start giving the "If Billy jumped off a bridge" lecture, take a deep breath: What's really happening? Though it might seem as if your kid is just trying to keep up with the crowd, he's also learning how to be a part of a group. Helping him find a balance between belonging and being himself can be hard, says Dr. Cohen. His advice? Don't sweat the small stuff: Is it really all that important that your daughter won't wear dresses or that your son wants long hair? Keep your eye on the bigger issues. If it seems like your child is following others out of insecurity and giving up stuff he loves, that's a problem and you need to gently intervene. Explain that good friends will like him for who he is. And if he gets teased, you're going to help him through it.

Social Challenge: Best friend one day, mortal enemy the next. My kid has a "frenemy"!

One week they are practically inseparable, making BFF bracelets and walking arm in arm. The next, your daughter informs you she and her former soul sister are no longer talking. Fight the temptation to pick up the phone and call the ex's mom. The intimacy and comfort that your child feels with her pal make her the perfect person to practice fighting and making up with -- kind of like the dynamic between siblings. Of course, you should listen empathetically when your child is upset, but "most kids get over fights sooner and bounce back faster from hurts than adults do," says Parents advisor Michael Thompson, PhD, coauthor of Best Friends, Worst Enemies. So give your child the space she needs to work out issues, and offer guidance when you see an opportunity. If your child seems stuck, though, it's time to intervene. You can help by arranging playdates with other kids.

Social Challenge: Birthday-party invitations this year? Very few.

If your child feels left out, talk to his teacher and get her take on the situation. She's seen your kid in action and can give you the lowdown on what's going on in class. The good news is that it will probably take just a little coaching on your part to get him over this social hump. Work with him. Be straightforward about how things like whining or tattling rub others the wrong way. Confide in a mom who'll be happy to help subtly jump-start a friendship between your child and hers.

Social Challenge: There's a mini queen bee in my kid's class.

Don't worry; your child isn't starring in Mean Girls Jr. Though your daughter might talk about the "popular girls" or has even morphed into one of the elite herself, what defines who's on top (and who's not) is always in flux. Kids are discovering the ins and outs of the idea of a social hierarchy, and they're also experimenting with the dark arts: gossiping, forming cliques, and excluding others -- but usually without malicious intent. "School-age kids are just beginning to understand the scope of their power over others," says Dr. Thompson. Here's where your guidance can help your child understand how to wield her influence kindly. It's a good idea to get your child involved in activities outside of school so that if things get rocky there's always another group of friends to fall back on.

Social Challenge: Girls are "gross!" My son dumped his best friend.

The battle of the sexes begins at this age. "Children go through a stage where they have rigid notions of what boys and girls are supposed to do," says Nicole Marcus, PhD, a clinical child psychologist in New York City. "This process helps them make sense of gender roles. But don't just let a long-standing friendship go down the tubes in a swirl of peer pressure. The boys and girls may want to have playdates on the sly -- especially if it seems like your idea. If your kid is feeling rejected by a former friend of the opposite sex, explain that it's not personal and it's not going to last forever.

Why Can't Three Be Friends?

Your child gets along well with buddies when she's playing one-on-one. But three is definitely a crowd. Somehow two of them (and the alliances can switch at any time) always manage to team up and leave the other feeling like, well, a third wheel.

What gives? "This is very common because a threesome is a much more complicated relationship," says Dr. Michael Thompson.

Although kids flock to groups of three, they don't yet have the developmental maturity to avoid excluding or ganging up on one person. "In a triangular relationship there are different levels of conflict, and one leg of the triangle is always stronger," says Dr. Thompson. "This makes it really difficult for kids to ever achieve equality among all the members of the group." For some kids, threesomes are just too much to handle, and you should stick to one-on-one playdates. But if your child absolutely insists on having two people over at the same time, try to keep everyone focused on an activity instead of on one another.

Good for Groups

A bunch of kids can create a whole lot of chaos -- unless you've got some surefire crowd-control techniques up your sleeve. Try these activities.

  • Jumping rope: Have the kids jump double Dutch, and rotate who gets to be in the middle.
  • Crafts or art projects: Letting everyone's individual creativity shine minimizes competitiveness.
  • Board games: Scrabble Junior and Monopoly Junior -- these are both great for groups of four or fewer.
  • Building: Legos and blocks are a good idea for a group, because kids can work together to complete one project.

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