As a new school year begins, how can we help our children to not only stand out but fit in at the same time?
Dr. Nate Balfanz, American Medical Center
The wonderful thing about attending school in a multicultural setting like Shanghai is that any preconceived notions as to what your “average” school student might look, sound, or act like can be completely tossed out the window. As most of us know, it’s not uncommon to enter an international school classroom here and observe children of all differing races, ethnicities, and/or cultural backgrounds sitting and learning amongst one another—frequently in two or more languages at a time. Despite the celebrated uniqueness of this experience, children will often still have a tendency to seek out the company of other kids with whom they identify, whether it be based on physical appearance, languages spoken, shared cultural beliefs and practices, or simply those who engage in like-minded interests and activities. This may result in social cliques being formed amongst certain groups of students, which can in turn leave other children feeling left out or alienated from their classroom peers. Often times then parents can be left wondering: How do I help my child embrace his/her individuality while at the same time recognizing the importance of finding a supportive peer group to belong to?
What the Research Tells Us
Developmental psychology research shows us how belonging to a supportive peer group is not only a good idea but also an evolutionary necessity. When children are younger, their ability to grow and thrive is largely contingent upon the reliability of care and support they receive from their primary caretakers—namely their parents and extended family. Although as they age, the support children seek moves from their primary caretakers to their same-aged peers and friendship circles. As Dr. Dan Siegel, child development expert and author of “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain” (2014) states, “Membership with a peer group can feel like a matter of life and death because of the result of millions of years of evolutionary processes. Social relationships are the most important thing for mental health, for medical health, for longevity, and for happiness.” Thus, developing the ability to cultivate social relationships in our childhood years can have lifelong implications for our overall physical and emotional wellbeing.
Tips for Helping Our Children Connect With Peers
1) Build from the inside out. The degree to which your child is comfortable with navigating social relationships is largely contingent upon the degree of confidence they experience within themselves. In an effort to help your child build his/her self-confidence, try to focus more on praising his/her unique talents, skills, and competencies, and less on correcting the things you want to see them doing differently.
2) Practice makes perfect. I’ll always remember being 7 years old and my dad rehearsing with me over and over again how to stand up straight, look someone in the eye, shake hands, and introduce myself (we moved around a lot when I was a kid, so meeting new people was something I did quite frequently). Practicing these skills at a young age and in the comfort of my own home with someone that I felt safe and secure with helped to put me at ease when generalizing them to social situations outside the home.
3) Connect with your own childhood. Watching your child navigate social relationships can be triggering for parents as it may bring up memories of when they too might have struggled to make friends as a child. In moments like this, you’ll want to ask yourself as a parent, “What is it that I needed when I was dealing with this as a kid? What was helpful for me, and what wasn’t?” Identifying what your own childhood needs were can in turn help you to better understand, attune, and respond appropriately to your child’s current needs.
Dr. Balfanz is the Senior Clinical Psychologist at American Medical Center, a comprehensive medical and mental health service clinic for children, adolescents, adults, and families living in Shanghai. For more information on clinic services, contact Dr. Balfanz at: firstname.lastname@example.org