Say your child was called a nasty name on the playground or didn’t get invited to a classmate’s birthday party. Say they feel jealous because another child is smart and well-liked. Or they desperately desire something another child has. Or their close friend is moving away, and they’re fretting about their friendship.
Would you intervene by talking to their parents?
Some parents do pick up the phone. But they shouldn’t, according to Joyce Marter, LCPC, psychotherapist and owner of Urban Balance LLC, a multi-site counseling practice in the greater Chicago area.
Marter has run into all of these scenarios at her practice. For instance, one mom called Marter’s client to say that she didn’t want their sons spending so much time together; her son felt insecure and inadequate.
Other parents have gotten involved when their child’s friend moved away and became closer with other kids. Marter also has seen parents request that other parents change their decisions – like take away an email account or cell phone – because their child was upset or disappointed.
In all these cases, the parents no doubt mean well. They love their kids and want to protect them, Marter said.
But intervening in your child’s battles can actually backfire – and affect their development. “If we fight our kids’ battles we are unintentionally communicating that we do not believe they are capable themselves,” Marter said. Through these battles, kids learn how to communicate effectively and resolve conflicts, she said. This not only improves their self-esteem, but also helps them feel empowered, she added.
Of course, this is very different from stepping in when your child is getting bullied. (See more on bullying below.) Also, “when your child is under the direct care of another parent it is appropriate to let them know some relevant rules for your child,” Marter said. For instance, you might let them know that you’re uncomfortable with your child being left at home or walking to the store unsupervised, she said.
What To Do Instead of Intervening
Instead of intervening in your child’s social dilemmas, Marter offered the following suggestions:
1. Empathize with your child and offer emotional support. Show your child that you understand how they’re feeling, Marter said. For instance, you might say, “I can see that you are feeling very sad and frustrated.”
“This will help your child gain insight into their feelings as well as help them know you understand, which promotes trust and intimacy,” she said. Plus, it helps to diffuse emotions, she said. “Sometimes kids – and adults – keep expressing their emotions and up the ante until they feel heard.”
Also, even if your kid’s emotions seem disproportionate to the situation, let them know that their feelings are still a normal response. “A child’s ability to understand and cope with feelings is less sophisticated than ours as adults and things that may seem little to us may in fact be very big to them,” Marter said. So you might say, she said: “It is understandable that you’re feeling sad that you couldn’t play with the others.”
Showing physical and verbal affection also helps kids feel safe and loved and reminds them that they’re not alone.
2. Help your child learn how to process emotions. For instance, guide them in using deep breathing to soothe their brain and body, Marter said. This involves breathing in through your nose, down to the stomach and then out through the mouth, she said.
Teach them to release their emotions by talking about them, writing, creating art, exercising and playing, she said. Help them practice mindfulness by bringing attention to the present and away from the issue, she said. You can even have them take a sip of water or take a walk together.
Also, help them avoid creating a monster of negative thoughts by focusing on the positive. “This promotes gratitude and positive thinking and reduces negative thinking patterns that can contribute to depression, anxiety and relationship problems,” Marter said.
Coach them to put things into perspective, and see the bigger picture, she said. “Coach them to ‘be a duck’ and let issues roll off their backs.”
Finally, humor is a huge help. “After you’ve validated your kid’s feelings and they have calmed down, you can use humor to help them learn to laugh it off.”
3. Teach your child to effectively resolve conflict. Explain to them how assertive communication works. For instance, have them use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. According to Marter, instead of saying “You left me out,” they can say “I am upset because I wasn’t included in the game.”
Teach them to empathize with other kids. For instance, you might ask, “How do you think that made Will feel?” Marter said. Encourage them to take responsibility for their actions. “Expect them to own up to any of their own negative behaviors and coach them on how to apologize through roleplay,” she said.
Roleplay other situations, too, and remind your child that they can only control their own actions and responses – not anyone else’s.
4. Be a good role model. “Modeling…healthy emotional expression, coping skills and conflict resolution is the best way to help your kids develop these life tools,” Marter said. In other words, “Monkey see, monkey do,” she said.
“There is a healthy balance between being a neglectful or absent parent and being an intrusive, helicopter parent. We need to give our children roots — education, values, support — and wings — let them become their own people,” Marter said.
A Note on Bullying
According to Marter, you can distinguish bullying from normal conflict by: “the severity of the action (such as a push on the playground vs. a punch in the nose), the frequency of the action (such as an isolated or rare incident vs. repeated or chronic behavior), and the individual’s ability to defend him- or herself.”
Bullying also looks different between boys and girls. Bullying among boys, Marter said, is usually more direct and physical or verbal. Girls, however, tend to gossip or exclude the person from social activities, she said.
For more information on bullying, you can read Psych Central’s blog Beating the Bully by Katherine Prudente, LCAT.