We all want to raise resilient, confident and socially intelligent kids. As a psychologist who specializes in adolescent development, I’ve found that the key is for parents to provide reassurance starting at a young age.
Kids, especially teens and tweens, sometimes need validation that what they are thinking and feeling is normal and okay. In fact, psychologists believe that validation is one of the most powerful parenting tools, and yet it is often left out of traditional behavioral parent training programs.
Validating your child’s feelings doesn’t necessarily mean you condone or agree with the actions they take. It simply means showing that you hear, understand and accept them. This can help teach them to effectively label their own emotions and be more in tune with their social environments, thereby increasing emotional intelligence.
Here’s how successful parents convey these important messages during hard times:
Friendships help children develop important life skills like getting along with other people and solving conflicts. But no friendship is perfect.
Remind your child that all friendships go through ups and downs. In lasting relationships, close friends inevitably disappoint, irritate or mess up occasionally.
If your kid is receptive, tell them about similar social heartaches that their sister, cousin, or you endured at their age. These stories are irrefutable evidence that they are not alone and should not feel ashamed.
Unless your kid recoils at touch, physical comfort may be more immediate and impactful than any verbal assurance.
Let’s say your kid is feeling upset about something. Before saying a single word, you might want to rub their back, give them a hug or hold their hand. A fifth grader once told her mother: “When I’m sad, I just need you to give me a big hug and say, ‘Yeah, that really sucks. It’s awful.'”
Not starting conversations right away also gives your kid time to prepare to talk about their distress.
Tweens often gauge self-worth by how many friends they have. They don’t recognize yet that the quality of relationships matters more. One study found that teens who had many — but more superficial — school friends became more anxious as young adults.
Plus, contrary to what most kids think, being popular doesn’t alleviate loneliness. Popularity, a social status that is driven by exerting power through rumors and put-downs, is inherently unstable and therefore difficult to maintain.
Reassure your kid that they do not need hundreds of friends, on either social media or in real life. A few will suffice, as long as they are loyal, trustworthy and supportive.
Research demonstrates that along with peer acceptance, at least one strong, healthy friendship predicts both good school performance and psychological well-being (e.g., high self-esteem and less anxiety).
I often see kids dwell on one social slight or disappointment, which in that moment looms larger and more pressing than all the positives in their lives.
While empathizing with your child’s distress, refocusing their attention on their most recent triumphs and pleasures lets them appreciate the bigger and brighter picture.
Tell your kid that although they are going through a rough time now, it will not last forever. Things will get better. This is not a platitude. Social situations will change because kids will change.
They just need to be patient while they and their peers mature. If they try to make changes in their friendships, for example, remind them that turning things around takes time. But for now, what they can control is how they act in socially challenging situations.
Studies of high school students demonstrate the value of social hope. In one study, freshmen students were asked to read a short brain science article about how personality can change. Then they read anecdotes seniors had written about eventually learning to shrug off and move on from peer conflicts.
Finally, the group was asked to write encouraging advice to younger students.
After stressful talks, the intervention group had 10% lower levels of cortisol than the control group, indicating that students who read inspiring information coped better. At the end of the school year, these freshmen were 40% less likely to be depressed and earned better grades than control students.
Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, author and speaker who specializes in the issues of women and teenage girls, mother-daughter relationships, parent guidance and psychoeducational assessments. She has been featured in print in many major outlets including The New York Times, Newsweek, Marie Claire, and Teen Vogue. Along with her husband, she divides her time between Connecticut and Los Angeles.
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