I’m a mom to two teenage girls. When I tell people this, some laugh knowingly, and most offer pity. It’s an interesting twist in my life; I’ve been teaching adolescents since 2007 and have helped hundreds of parents get their teens to do homework, improve their reading and study skills and more.
I now work with teens who are socially isolated or rejected by their peers. Parents ask me to intervene when their kids are being teased or bullied, or if they’re not developing or maintaining friendships. We often hope it’s a phase and that it will get better. But the science of behavior shows that negative experiences will more likely discourage teens from trying to make friends after a while. This puts their mental health at risk. So what can be done?
Here are my tips for parents of teens showing signs of peer rejection or social isolation:
1. Use positive reinforcement. For many kids, especially those with ADHD, anxiety or Autism, social situations are hard. Celebrate the attempts and successes, no matter how small. If they have a setback, address it and move on. Staying positive and recognizing hard work ensures they’ll keep trying.
2. Encourage self-awareness. Sometimes teasing is really embarrassing feedback about hygiene or something else hard to hear. Everyone has to recognize they aren’t perfect. If we know what we need to work on, we’re able to practice and develop skills in that area. Acknowledging a weakness in social situations, such as having trouble keeping a conversation going or not knowing how to play fair, is the first step in building social skills.
3. Help them find an appropriate source of friends. Your teen might be trying to fit in with a group that doesn’t accept him. You can suggest trying another group based on common interests. If they haven’t been able to make friends at school, enroll them in an extracurricular. Free activities at the library or even volunteering gives them exposure to peers who share their interests and provides practice and opportunities for developing relationships.
4. Coach them through tough situations. When teasing, bullying, rumors or gossip happen, give advice based on what other teens do. Tattling or having a parent step in can make things worse. Teach your teen to shrug it off and make it apparent to the teaser that it doesn’t bother them. Having a group of friends also protects against bullying. Of course, if bodily harm is at stake, they need to involve an adult.
5. Enroll in a social skills class. Social skills classes are available to teens with and without diagnosed disabilities and can help when a teen is experiencing trouble making or keeping friends. The PEERS® program is the only parent-assisted, research-based program that consists of 14 sessions to teach conversation skills, electronic communication, appropriate uses of humor, sportsmanship, hosting get-togethers, handling teasing and bullying and more.