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How can I help my son to make more friends and feel less left out?

My son is in year two of senior school, after starting a new school in year 5. He was just settling into year 6 when lockdown began and, since then, he’s not really been able to get himself fully going again. Last night he revealed that he’s often left out of groups or feels that he can’t join in. He’s not sporty and needs to be forced to go to the after school sports clubs, causing more anxiety. What can I do to help?

It is always gut-wrenching for parents to hear our children’s disgruntlement and upset about feeling unsettled or not fitting in. First of all, full credit to you for the fact that your son has opened up and told you how he is feeling. The fact that he did so means that he feels able to explain his feelings and expects a supportive and positive response.

As you have identified in your email, there is little doubt that, for some children, lockdown has had a negative impact on their social skills. Settling into school life takes time and months of remote learning has contributed to children feeling somewhat set back in their friendships. They have missed out on thousands of interactions with peers, and participation in routine activities was difficult for a prolonged period. However, now that children are back in school and the term is in full swing, we can work towards building up their self-esteem and ability to take full advantage of the opportunities open to them.

My first tip is to reassure your son that you have heard what he said and that you will work on it together, within family life. Over the weekend, it would be a good idea for both parents to sit down with him to talk about it. Reflect back the language that he used and draw out three things that you can work on proactively together. So, “we heard you say that you feel left out sometimes. Is that accurate? “I think you said that you struggle to fit in. Is that the case?” Clarify what he told you and show him that you are listening in a loving, non-judgmental and objective way. Both of you can show him how proud you are of him for sharing his feelings with you and give him the sense that you have confidence in his ability to work through these issues.

Can he identify two things that he would particularly like to work on over the week ahead? Perhaps he isn’t sure how to join in a particular activity. This could spark a good quality conversation about ‘fitting in’. Ask him to think through where, in his life, he does feel like he fits in. When he talks about where he doesn’t fit in, can you co-create some ideas to try when he is back at school?

As you can tell, this strategy is about boiling down problems into something tangible and identifiable and then working together to create small, achievable goals. As part of this dialogue, you want him to come up with evidence that he is capable of fitting in (he may just be forgetting the times that he did/does). There will be areas of life where he thrives and it is a good idea to draw these out. How can he apply strategies that work in one area of his life, to another? Does ‘fitting in’ require some social skills practice? Are there particular conversations you can script and test out within family life?

Discuss what activities or clubs he would feel interested in or enthusiastic about joining, at school or outside of school? Before insisting that he attend any club, try to support him to attend one that he has some interest in. Ahead of this, is there someone that he could attend with? Could you talk to the teacher/leader of the club to find out what they will be doing in the next session? For example, if they will be making a go-kart in the STEM club, your son can be supported to think through ways in which he might assert himself and what he might enjoy about this activity. If he can’t find a club that interests him, is there a chance that he could approach the school about starting something different? Everybody likes some entrepreneurial spirit! Tune into his hobbies and interests. Sometimes role models talk about not ‘fitting in’ at school or experiencing anxiety within their own lives. Have a think about who he might look up to and seek out appropriate material.

I would suggest that there is work to be done on his general self-esteem. Do read the related resources on this within the Tooled Up library and consider our various ‘wobble’ resources, designed to nudge children towards puzzling out their anxieties and fears, with support. Have weekly family chats where you note his progress and make your parental pride in his courage and efforts clear. If you ever have any concerns about his mental health, always head to the GP as a first port of call.