By Emily Williams
Though the modern-day king of fairy tales, Walt Disney has been quoted as saying, “You are not doing a child a favor by trying to shield him from reality.”
A reality that goes hand-in-hand with growing up and maturing in any educational system is the struggle to maintain healthy relationships with peers.
Because these struggles happen in school hallways and in private, it’s difficult for a parent to navigate their child through the social issues of friendship and peer conflict.
To help equip parents with the tools to help their children, a panel discussion, “How to Help Your Child Build Healthy Peer Relationships,” will be featured at the upcoming All In Mountain Brook Parenting Conference: Elementary Edition.
Advising parents on identifying their children’s issues with peers and helping them deal with those issues will be Laurie King, principal of Crestline Elementary; Kari Kampakis, Mountain Brook mother, blogger, speaker and author; Alice Churnock, a licensed counselor with Covenant Counseling Center; and Sharon Lyerly, ninth-grade counselor at MBJH.
Identifying the Issues
One of the main struggles a child faces in school is interacting with peers, a cornerstone of which is navigating changing friendships and feelings of exclusion.
“The three most prevalent peer struggles are: how to forgive or apologize, how to empathize; feeling left out and how to navigate that skillfully; and being empowered to control attitudes or responses,” said King.
According to Kampakis, a child’s ability to deal with changing friendships is made even more difficult in today’s society by the presence of social media, which provides a “highlight reel” of one’s life and can amplify feelings of insecurity and exclusion.
Not only do children have to recover from hurtful comments, whether intentional or not, heard in person or through the grapevine, they now also have to deal with what’s said on the internet.
“What every child is trying to figure out (is) who they are individually and as part of a group. Like adults, kids want to stay true to themselves and still be accepted,” said Kampakis.
Introverted children often struggle with feelings of exclusion that may not affect a more naturally social child. Churnock noted that feelings of invisibility and exclusion, when magnified by a young child’s lack of maturity and experience, can, in some cases, lead to depression. Her advice to avoid those feelings begins with a simple adage.
“Two’s company, three’s a crowd,” Churnock said. “My mom was notorious for saying that to me when I was a child, and, while it annoyed me at the time, there’s a lot of wisdom to it.”
Don’t “Fix” It
When it comes to conflicts with friends and peers, one of the main issues for a parent is figuring out when to get involved and when to not get involved.
“Technology makes it easy to jump the gun and send an angry text or phone call,” Kampakis said. “But if we pause first, we often come to a more rational response that will bring a better outcome.”
Panel members agreed that, while a parent’s first reaction may be to try to “fix” the situation when they see their child is being hurt, getting involved in a conflict between children and their peers often makes matters worse. In addition, Kampakis added that dealing with conflict is an important learning experience for a child that teaches valuable skills in one-on-one conflict resolution, “dealing with difficult people and coping with hard emotions.”
For the seminar, the panel has drafted four guidelines for parents to follow when conflict occurs.
First, listen to your child. “Being a listener and asking the right questions leads to better solutions much of the time,” King said.
Second is to show no emotion. “Take time to breathe, stay calm and look at the big picture,” Kampakis said.
Third, ask your child the right questions: What do you think you should do? Do you want my help?
Fourth, help your child brainstorm options for handling the situation. Kampakis noted that she loves King’s question when students enter her office at Crestline: “If you were the principal, what would you do?”
The Friendship Game
In addition to finding a healthy way to help your child react to peer conflict, there are plenty of ways that a parent can prepare a child for issues with friends and other students.
According to King, having healthy discussions at home is a great way to help give a child the confidence to handle peer conflict on their own. Discussion topics could be about empathy, friendship, kindness and conflict resolution.
Churnock added that parents should use discussions and role-playing to teach their kids how to be assertive and to politely stand up for themselves.
“One of the greatest relational gifts I believe a parent can give a child is the gift of assertiveness,” Churnock said. “Not being passive, not being aggressive, but being assertive.”
It is equally important in these interactions that a child learns to feel comfortable talking to adults. In those more severe cases that require adult involvement, it helps if a child feels confident reaching out to their teachers, Kampakis said.
Most of all, it’s important for kids to have friends.
Kampakis believes that a child should strive to find one or two loyal and loving friends, because having that support system can lessen the blow of other hurtful encounters.
“It also puts an ally in your child’s corner who might take up for them so they’re not alone,” she added.
Beyond the true friends, Churnock thinks it is important for a child to explore friendships with a variety of other kids. That way, they’ll be able to learn more about themselves through those friends that they connect best with and those that maybe aren’t such great friends.
“I tell my clients that friends are like giant boxes of Jelly Belly jelly beans,” she said. “We open the box and there are all kinds of beautiful colors, and when we taste one it may be delicious. We may taste the next one and immediately regret it, especially the crazy, booger-flavored ones! But we needed to taste both flavors to know what we like and don’t like.”
The All In Mountain Brook Parenting Conference: Elementary Edition is free to attend and will be held Feb. 13 at Crestline Elementary school from 5:30 p.m. until 7:55 p.m.
Following an opening presentation by Mountain Brook Superintendent Dicky Barlow, parents can choose three 40-minute sessions to attend from among seven discussions that will be led by professionals in psychology, therapy, education and more.
In addition to the panel participants, session leaders include Dr. Elizabeth B.B. Lee, clinical psychologist with Ackerson and Associates; Dale Wisely, director of student services at Mountain Brook Schools; Jerry Hood, retired educator; Amanda Hood, principal of MBHS; the Rev. Rich Webster, Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church; Dr. Andrea Hicks, clinical psychologist; George Casey, executive director of Impact Family Counseling; and Cameron Cole, director of children, youth and family at the Cathedral Church of the Advent.
For registration and a full list of session topics, visit allinmountainbrook.org.