My Child Is Struggling Socially in School

My Child Is Struggling Socially in School

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A Solo Mom’s guide to staying calm and cool

In an amusing and lovely piece about sending her daughter off to summer camp, the always delightful Jennifer Weiner quotes her mother’s advice to her when she became a parent: “You’re only ever as happy as your unhappiest child.”

For a Solo Mom, that can be both a warning and a mantra. We want to make sure we have given our children as much support, guidance, and inspiration as any set of nuclear parents can. Sometimes more.

As a Solo Mom, you never want to feel that having a non-nuclear family has, in any way, impeded your child, right? Extended family, surrogate parents, a great community—you try for it all to give your child that equitable social experience. So what do you do when it seems like your kid is struggling socially? That is a complicated question for any parent and is particularly worrisome as your child enters adolescence. Even though we Solo Moms may have been angsty adolescents only yesterday, it’s very hard to watch our own kids experience problems at school. We worry that we’ve been too busy keeping the family afloat to pay enough attention where it matters.

If your child is struggling socially—whether in elementary, middle, or high school—there is something you need to consider before you take any steps. Make sure you aren’t projecting your own anxieties about yourself as a Solo Mom on your evaluation, and try not to draw a direct line from who you are to how your child navigates his or her social life. File memories of your own childhood problems in a shoe box for a little while so you can see your child a little more clearly. Then consider the following:

Speak with the teacher, or volunteer for a day in the classroom and observe. Watch without immediately assuming someone is to blame or something can be fixed easily.

A social environment, as much as we would like to see it as a simple matter of cause and effect, is more like an ecosystem, and school is a territory for your child to navigate.

Decide how much your speaking up or altering your child’s classroom environment will actually help your child at that school and with that teacher, and try not to add pressure that might isolate your child even further.

Find extracurricular activities that involve a different group of children. If your child can find interests with other kids, then the type of social interaction might be different and more engaged. Even something as simple as an art class or a sports team (even if it isn’t your kid’s favorite thing to do) can lead to different relationships.

Make a point of having the whole family eat dinner together. You don’t have to make the conversation happen. You don’t have to serve the perfect meal. But a habit of organizing time together creates structure, and research shows children whose families eat dinner together regularly are better adjusted.

What if, even after implementing all the above suggestions, you still feel as if your child is having trouble socializing? You have to ask yourself whether this is a problem or a character trait. Enlist a friend to step in and have a heart-to-heart. Check with your pediatrician, and don’t hesitate to consult a therapist.

Answer the Childhood Autism Spectrum Test questions to see how your child rates on the autism spectrum, and if you are curious, get a professional to evaluate your child.

If your child is an adolescent, be aware that this time in his or her life is often a whirlwind, and watch your child for signs of a deeper problem that might require professional psychiatric attention.

Finally, remember that not all children have to be great at everything, including socializing. Your child may be working on his or her future as a resilient artist, engineer, or scientist.

Many artists, for example, will invoke their childhood inability to be “part of the crowd” as the beginning of their creative journey. There is something about standing apart—or even having a miserable time—that rewards a thoughtful, introspective, and artistic spirit.

Here’s what to do as a parent: encourage expressions of artistic tendencies with trips to museums and concerts, and by sharing music, art, and movies that express the otherness of the artist. It’s OK if some of these are a bit advanced or maybe shocking for their age. Let them understand that art can stimulate and provoke. Be cool about subjects others would consider “inappropriate.”

You may find that this will open doors to other like-minded kids who march to the beat of their own drummer, and your child might suddenly find a new group of friends. You also may find your child communicating more with you.

And remember, it’s a journey and a learning curve for your child, too. Your lonely first-grade duckling can easily blossom into a middle-school swan.

Want advice from other Solo Moms who’ve been there? Sister Chat is a confidential place to ask the tough questions.

Margot Kessler, a screen and television writer living in Los Angeles, is the sporadically witty Solo Mom of two lovely daughters.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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