Every new school year is like a high-stakes game of friend roulette: As your child adjusts once again to a new teacher, classroom, curriculum, and set of expectations, will they also manage to find their people and, in the classic parlance, “fit in”? Round and round the social hierarchy goes; where your kid lands, nobody knows!
It can be brutal — and I mean brutal — to watch your child struggle to connect with others or fail to feel at home in the tiny universe that is their school, unsure of who to hang or play or eat lunch with. And it takes maddeningly little for a kid to end up in this situation. Last year’s BFF gets assigned to another class, or just another table. Power rankings shift. Loyalties wither. The buddy that once embraced your child wanders elsewhere at recess. It’s common, but that doesn’t make it suck any less.
But here’s where things really get tricky: Naturally, you want to teach your child that it’s OK not to fit in if doing so requires them to be something they’re not. Yet, even as you assure them that being yourself is way better than kowtowing to the crowd, you long to hear tales of their recess hijinks with pals or excited requests to have a playdate with this or that new best friend. You long, in other words, for confirmation that they don’t feel alone… or, worse, like there’s something wrong with them because they’re alone.
So, how do you guide your child between two seemingly contradictory notions — i.e., “Conformity is boring!” vs. “We all need to feel like we have a place in the world!”? Here are a few pointers.
Make home a safe, comfy place.
Whenever our son, now a kindergartener, is going through a tough time, this is the phrase my husband and I repeat to each other: soft landing. When our child comes home, we want him to feel as though he can check whatever temporary yuckiness he’s experiencing at the door. Maybe you think this goes without saying. But in parenting, it’s so easy to overlook the obvious in the (constantly harried, frequently frustrated) moment, and the reminder helps.
What does a soft landing look like? Like pushing comfort the same way we push fluids when he’s sick. You want some extra TV before bath? Sure thing. You’re feeling hyper-clingy? Yeah, I can stay until you fall asleep. These small expenditures make a big emotional impact, and that’s a bargain well worth striking.
Help them make the problem feel manageable rather than insurmountable.
Kids are great at lots of things. Keeping things in proportion is generally not one of them. So, if your kid’s state of not fitting in is manifesting in tearful hysteria before getting on the bus or self-defeating dinnertime litanies about how mean everyone is, dish up some perspective.
That doesn’t mean saying stuff like “This too shall pass” (a useless middle school counselor told me this once when I was bullied) or “Someday you won’t remember this” (I’m 41; I still remember). It means telling them that you get it, and it sucks. “But you’re a strong kid,” you might say, “and there are things we can try.”
Try some things!
This is a great chance to teach your child a vital lesson: When life blows, as it sometimes does, doing even one thing differently nearly always helps. Has your child been putting up a wall that tells their classmates they’re not approachable? Maybe they can take a different tack. I have learned and re-learned this lesson a hundred times in my life: Most people are nice, and most people want to connect, too.
Another thing I vividly remember from my school years? A girl who was prettier and cooler and more popular than me by a factor of 10, who I assumed therefore was out of my friendship league. Except that when I finally said hi, we had a lively and hilarious conversation, and she became my best friend for a decade. She was lonely, too, which I didn’t know because (duh) I’d never spoken to her. And becoming her friend didn’t mean I had to change who I was or embrace conformity. It just meant I had to… say hello.
So, ask your kid to look around with fresh eyes. Is there another kid who seems not to fit in? If so, that’s someone worth talking to. Are there kids your child hasn’t met but who they’ve somehow decided don’t like? Ignore that almost certainly erroneous belief! Just say hi, and if they do turn out to be jerks, at least your child will know for sure.
And in the improbable case that none of the above works, your child still has options. Is there somewhere they can go or something they can do to make social situations less isolating? In middle school, when I needed a respite from the bullying that someday I wouldn’t remember (any day now, fingers crossed!), I went to the library at lunch. Maybe that sounds dorky or sad. I didn’t care. I got to cuddle up with some Lois Lowry, and doing so got me through a crappy time. The chess club, the art room, a notepad to doodle in at recess — whatever it may be for your kid, there are enjoyable ways to ride out the storm.
However your kid’s time in the lonely wilderness works out, it will work out. They will find the people they’re supposed to find, and make good and loving friends, and figure out who they are in relation to their classmates. And, later, their coworkers and community and the whole wide world. They won’t believe it if you say it to them now, but you can be assured of the truth — which is, though I hate to admit it, that this too shall pass.