Sometimes every parent needs advice. For our occasional advice column, we post readers’ questions that we know (or at least suspect) plague more than one parent. You — the readers — provide the advice: How have you made this work better in your family? I invite an expert to add to the discussion.
This quandary came via email, and concerns middle schoolers interacting with their peers — a trouble spot for many. Here’s the question:
My middle school child has been dealing with another child at school who is pursuing him — sometimes just hanging out near him, sometimes actively trying to get his attention by doing things like spraying water from the fountain at him in the hallways. My son doesn’t want to be friends, and he’s been getting in trouble for responding to the other boy in kind.
How do you help your middle schooler handle kids who are bothersome, frustrating, annoying or just not someone they want to be friends with? Sometimes, especially if that child has demonstrated some level of social awkwardness, it can feel like polite adult tactics won’t work. My son has talked to his teachers and even the vice principal and thinks the school understands that this other child is a challenge, but the situation hasn’t changed. How should I help my son respond better? Should I approach the school? I don’t want to intervene, but I’m wondering if I should.
“There are so many dynamics going on here, ” said Andrea Nair, a psychotherapist, parenting educator and the author of “Taming Tantrums.” “There’s a real disparity in maturity level at that age. ” In middle school, a child with a good amount of empathy who can understand other people, read their body language and consider what they’re thinking may be seated next to a child who is still entirely self-focused. That is part of what makes middle school interactions so tricky, she says.
As adults, we’ve had a lot of experience dealing with other people. Our children have not, and it’s tempting to want to jump in and solve the problem. Ms. Nair suggests considering what your child needs to learn to handle a situation on his own rather than just focusing on the immediate problem. Before she gets involved, “I always ask myself, am I going to help or hinder?”
With a middle schooler, she advises parents to make sure the child has tried everything before intervening. In this case, the son has approached adults at the school and now needs to have a strategy for handling the other student himself.
“Say, ‘I know this is tricky,’” she said. Let him know that everyone has trouble figuring out what to do in similar situations, and ask him to help think of ways to respond rather than to react. “A reaction is knee-jerk,” she says, and often something we regret. A response is something we have considered, that says the things we want to say.
Parents should let the child take the lead in coming up with responses, but can and should help. Most children will want to start with a nonverbal approach, because directly telling someone that you don’t want their company is hard. Children can lower their eye contact, turn their backs or look in the other direction when the other child is approaching, Ms. Nair says. If the other student begins a conversation your child doesn’t want to participate in but can’t easily physically leave (at a lunchroom table, for example), your child could respond with “mmm-hmmm” or take out a book.
If a more direct response is needed (as it may be here), help your child plan words that are appropriate to the situation. Remind him, too, says Ms. Nair, that things might get worse before they get better. “They’re likely to keep pushing and getting in your face because they’ve had a response before,” she says. “They’re expecting some kind of engagement.”
Finally, she suggests talking together about why this child might be doing these things. “There’s a difference between understanding and empathizing, and being O.K. with it,” she says. You can help your child learn that we can appreciate why someone might do something without having to like the person or the action.
How have you helped your child handle challenging middle-school social situations? Have you had to intervene with a school or even another family, and did it help?