If your child is unpopular among his peers, you'll know how painful it is to witness the apple of your eye being brushed aside for more 'liked' children. It is even more difficult and frustrating to try helping them. Why is it that some children are very popular in their peer group and seem to have dozens of friends, and some kids just don't seem to get along with even one ? What can parents do to help a disliked child? We explore these issues in this article.
It is important to find out what causes unpopularity among young children , and what are the criteria kids use to accept or reject a new child in their group. Firstly, The key differentiating point appears to be the communication skills. A well-liked child is not just good at expressing his own feelings, but is also good at reading and responding to others' feelings. In contrast, an unpopular child might not be able to recognize his playmates feelings. For example, four year old Mohit likes rough play with his father, and so plays the same with Suchi. It is difficult for Mohit to understand that Suchi hates his rough play, and actually avoids playing with him because of it.
Secondly, Disliked children also exhibit more unpleasant behavior, typically aggression. This might stem from their inability to put their feelings in words. Kids, like us, don't like aggression, and would avoid a child who is likely to hurt them in some way.
Lastly, popular children are good at creatively arriving at alternate play strategies when they are rejected. They suggest other games, or variations in existing games to suit a particular environment or people. Consider this scenario: A group of 5-6 year old kids were playing house, and Mohit wanted to join them. However, he was instantly rejected, as the kids did not need another 'family member'. Mohit was angry , and responded by disrupting their game. Rohit, on other hand, was more adaptive. When he too was rejected as a family member, he suggested he could be a ghost and circle round the house. This sounded like fun to the other kids, as it did not alter their original game, added more spunk, and went with their requirement of 'no more family members'. Adjusting oneself according to potential playmates goes a long way in boosting a child's popularity.
It seems some kids indeed have all these characteristics ingrained and are popular without effort. What to do if your child is not one of them. While you may not be able to alter your kid's popularity index overnight to a rock star's , there is still a plenty that can be done. Remember, it is a child's need to be liked and loved, and when he is not liked, it is not only irritating, but also very painful for him. I'm giving a few pointers, based on which every caretaker can create a unique list to to-dos according to the child concerned.
- Enhance his Social Skills
A good way to make your child better at expressing himself is to schedule some play-time with a younger child. A younger child will be less verbal than him, and the opportunity to be the big one in play would boost the child's self confidence. His communication would improve as he dictates, teaches and explains to a younger kid. You could also point out his playmates feelings when the child is unable to recognize them. 'See Manu's face. Do you think he likes to be carried like this. Do you think he is enjoying the ride on the play-duck? Is he happy or scared. How can we re-assure him?' and so on.
- Teach Conflict Resolution
A lot of aggression comes from not being able to deal with a crisis situation. Teaching alternate ways to vent anger, and voice emotions will go a long way to subside a child's violent behavior. Parents behavior at home is the best teacher for this. If parents minimize the use of physical punishment and instead insist on positive reinforcement of values, it is very possible that the same would echo in their kids.
- Play with him Like His Friend
Instead of letting your 'raju' win all the time, or letting him choose the color of his coin, play with him as an equal would. It would give him a hands-on training of conflict resolution.
- Work on his Reputation
When a kid is classified as a 'bad boy' in his group, his positive behavior is also seen in a negative light. Then just changing his actions will not be enough. It will be important for a parent to intervene in the group, point out the kids changed behavior, and guide other kids to be good and friendly towards their 'new and improved' friend.
- Sort it out yourself
A word of caution. Mothers rushing to 'protect' their child when an accidental push caught him off-guard is setting a wrong precedent. Also, when children play and fight with other kids, they learn important lessons in acceptable social behavior. They will sort out their issues , maybe in a better way, themselves.
- Your Attitude Matters
Children are keen observers. If Varun rejects your childs' playing request for no apparent reason , do not comment 'Varun was really mean and bad bay today'. Instead you could say , 'Uhoh, Varun doesn't want to play with you today, maybe he is tired .' If your child is not heartbroken on every rejection, it is highly possible that he would approach more playmates, and have more success eventually.
What not to do is often equally, if not more, important as what to do. If your child is indeed an unpopular child at play, there are a few things you might like to avoid doing.
- You should not scold him excessively for his antisocial activities. It is tempting to think that if your kid stops pushing, peers would start liking him. While that might be true, scolding or spanking will not make him stop his aggressive habits. Lead by example and be gentle yourself. Kids love their parents attention, positive or negative. Be especially careful not to make statements as- ' No wonder you have no friends, who'd like to play with a hitting child?' or 'Neha doesn't want to play with you because you throw sand on her. Even I don't want to play with you.' This would immediately affect in a lowered self esteem. Remember, a low self-confidence for life would harm your child much more than a few less friends.
- As discussed earlier, even if your child does turn agreeable , his peer group might not immediately respond positively to it. While kind redirection might help, do not pressurize them to play with him or to be good to him. They may resent your authority, and it might lead to added isolation of your child, specially when you are not around to supervise.
- Do not, in desperation, cut your child's social time completely. Kids learn by making social mistakes, and then stand corrected by help of their friends. If you'll take away these precious learning moments, he might loose an opportunity to develop the skills needed in later life to make and maintain sustained relationships with other people.
Popularity and Friendships are no doubt very important. But let me emphasize that kids are all miracles, and should be appreciated, cherished and loved as much as one can, whether they are popular or not. Growing up is a tough process, tougher than we realize, and they need us a lot.