Son gets left out at recess, breaks mom’s heart.
by Mary Follin and Erika Guerrero
Read in Fredericksburg Parent & Family Magazine
THE PROBLEM: My fifth-grade son is having a hard time making friends this year. He had two good friends in his class in third grade, but they lost touch during the pandemic. Unfortunately, neither of the two boys returned to his school this year, so he’s starting all over again, which isn’t easy for him. He’s actually a good friend. Once he has a friend or two, he’s happy, and his friends seem to like him. It’s just that finding a new friend is hard for him. The other day I was driving by the school when the kids were out at recess, and my son was wandering around by himself, watching a couple of groups, but not joining in. I wish I didn’t feel so bad about it, but I do. I had a couple of ‘lonely’ years as a kid, and I hate watching him go through it.
MARY SAYS: As parents, we need to be careful not to project our own feelings on our children, as tempting as it may be. Unless your son has told you he’s having a hard time making friends, he may not see it that way. In fact, he may be enjoying ‘time-off’ from the rigors of socializing or strategizing about which group he wants to belong to. [I know a mom who felt devasted when she learned her (now-grown) son had to wear glasses as a toddler—she hated wearing them herself as a child. Lo and behold, by the time her son was in fourth grade, children were buying fake glasses to look like a bespectacled boy named Harry Potter, and her son got to wear the real thing.]
But let’s say your son is struggling to find a friend. What can you do to help?
First of all, tell him about your lonely year as a child. When someone feels lonely, it’s nice to know they’re not—well, alone. Tell him what you did to cope, but more importantly, tell him it didn’t last.
This, too, shall pass.
Also let him know he can make it ‘pass’ a lot faster by using a secret device that’s hidden in plain sight. You mentioned you saw your son alone on the playground that day, by himself. Did you happen to notice who else was wandering around, looking for something to do? (Another thing we do as parents is focus a little too much on our own kids, don’t we?)
Encourage your child to do some detective work and observe another child who’s wandering around the schoolyard on their own. Teachers and playground monitors will tell you they see children hanging out by themselves every day, looking longingly at groups of children who are having fun, seemingly with no effort at all.
Why not turn this into a strategy? Tell your son to notice who else is hanging out by themselves at recess and figure out a way to engage. One good question is usually all it takes for children to suddenly realize they’ve found a kindred spirit. “Wanna look for rocks?” “How’d you do on that quiz?” Or the old stand-by: “What’s your name?”
Aside from making a new friend, your son will gain a skill that many adults have yet to learn. Making friends doesn’t always ‘just happen,’ but it seems to when you learn how to make it happen on purpose.
ERIKA SAYS: Nothing makes your heart break more than knowing your child is eating lunch alone and wandering around at recess without somebody to play with. While I understand how tough this can be on your heart, my suggestion is to understand the ‘why’ before going down the rabbit hole of pity.
Wanting to save our children from difficult situations is normal, but sometimes you have to stop and ask yourself: “Is this situation disheartening because it’s triggering me, or has my child expressed sadness over it? Could he be in a stage where he’s enjoying his own company and, if that is the case, can I be comfortable knowing he just likes to be alone?”
A great way to start is by having a conversation with your son. Does it bother him? Is he lonely or is he content? Your son is at an age where he’s slowly but quickly approaching his teenage years, and all his peers are beginning to go through puberty, while others are not even close. This can make it challenging to relate to others when it feels like you’re suddenly in different life stages. At this age, children are also becoming more aware of themselves and self-conscious about what others think of them. Could it be he’s developed some social anxiety? Having this conversation can help you figure out what to do next.
It sounds like your child is likable and easy to be around, but needs a little help learning how to initiate new relationships. (A skill he’ll use and refine his whole his life, by the way.) Here are some things you can do to help him:
Joining clubs or activities:
Encourage your son to explore his interests and join clubs or activities, outside and within his school, where he’ll be around children with the same interests. Having something in common helps ease the friend-making process.
Make friends with his classmates’ parents:
I always make an effort to attend social gatherings and activities at my son’s school. This gives me an opportunity to get to know other parents and their children. After a few social gatherings, try inviting some parents and their kids on an outing, something as simple as meeting for ice cream. Set the kids up at one table, and let the adults enjoy each other’s company at a table nearby.
Keep things going:
Part of building relationships means you have to be intentional and reach out. Have you thought about suggesting he contact his old friends? Have him reach out for a playdate so they can “catch up.”
We can’t make friends for our kiddos, but we can help them build confidence and learn skills to make their own. If you’re proactive without pressuring him, I believe your son will do just fine making a new friend or two. It’ll be a balance between allowing him to come into his own, helping him grow skills in social settings, and accepting your son for who he is.
Some kids are simply not as extroverted as we want them to be, and that’s okay. Whether your little guy enjoys his own company or desires to make new friends, knowing he can rely on you to stick with him throughout these ‘growing pains’ is what’s most important.