How an insightful tween and psychologist mother connect on the way to a birthday party.
My 11-year-old son had a birthday party to go to one Saturday afternoon. As we’re heading to the party, he said, “I don’t want to go” in a tone I know too well: he’s panicking. In my head I thought this makes no sense he is going to his neighbor’s party whom he sees EVERY DAY!! But I take a breath and ask “Really, why not?” Then I hear another familiar sound, very fast breathing and in a more panicky tone, “I just don’t want to go, I’m anxious”. Ok, I got this, I say “Just breathe, slowly, let’s figure this out my number one client.” As we talk, I review with him his history of struggles going to parties, entering classrooms, going to play dates and engaging his peers. Some of the incidents he remembered, some he did not. I pointed out to him how far he had come since his preschool days and how brave he has been over the years entering classroom after classroom as the new kid because of our military lifestyle. (He is going into 6th grade and has been the new kid five times since preschool.) We connected the incidents with what he shared recently with me and his father; he doesn’t like to approach his friends, he’d rather wait until they come to him. I pointed out how just the other day he struggled to go to the pool where his friends already were, and how it seemed harder to JOIN his friends rather than going WITH his friends. That time I went to the pool, and we realized that put him at ease because I was his crutch, his backup playmate, so he felt safe. Once there, he readily joined his friends and told me we would play later.
Now I am getting my Aha moments and putting the pieces together. As we pull into the parking lot for the birthday party, I asked him why he thought he was anxious, and he said “Fear of rejection.” I laughed out loud because that’s where I was headed! I asked if he thought of that phrase on his own and we agreed I might have mentioned it before; nevertheless, it’s quite insightful for him to identify that fear when he’s actually feeling it.
As we walk in, I am struggling to provide social skills training that will get him through the first 10-15 minutes of the party. After that he usually relaxes and enjoys himself. Unfortunately, all I came up with is what NOT to do: don’t sulk or be obnoxious to get attention. His push back “It’s too late. I’ve been obnoxious before and got yelled at.” Darn it. So now I am panicking because I don’t have the answer, all the kids come in, he sits, looks gloomy, barely says hi to his friends. UGH. I give him a couple of hugs and leave, torn, wanting to stay to coach him but knowing that is not helpful, he has to figure this one out. I didn’t hear from him for a couple of hours, so I was confident he pulled through. But now what? It sounds to me like a little introversion, mixed with fear of rejection, and add that adolescent boy behavior.
What To Do:
1. Debrief him when he comes home to find out what went RIGHT. If anything went wrong, brainstorm what he might do next time. Help him develop COPING SKILLS.
2. Recognize a gender difference: If it were my daughter, the girls would come in squealing and hug her as a group putting her immediately at ease. The boys are more aloof, lots of “Hey”, and you can pick out the leader of the pack, this does not put my son at ease. Now I must look into the social development of adolescent boys. AHHHH!
3. Explore introversion and social phobias.
4. CALL THE MILITARY FAMILY LIFE CONSULTANT. (I have her on speed dial) His first year of middle school starts soon, and he may need some extra support to make this transition.
What Not To Do:
1. Avoid providing too many escapes from social situations i.e. video games. The more he interacts with his peers, the more situations he will learn to manage.
2. TRY not to be the crutch. Provide him with skills, encouragement, and a safety net but do NOT go to the sleepover with him. I WILL not go to college with him.
3. NEVER say, “I told you it would be fun”. Discuss his efforts and listen to how things went. If it went well, use the incident later as an example of overcoming fearful situations.
Have you had a similar experience? Did you provide a social crutch for your child? How did you address the issue?