As a new school year begins, how can we help our children to not only stand out, but fit in at the same time?
The wonderful thing about attending school in a multicultural city like Shanghai is that any preconceived notions as to what your ‘average’ school student might look, sound, or act can be completely tossed out the window. As most of us know, it’s not uncommon to enter an international school classroom here and see children of all different races, ethnicities or cultural backgrounds sitting and learning together – often 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 among certain groups of students, which can in turn leave others feeling left out or alienated from their peers. Often times, parents can be left wondering: How do I help my child embrace his/her individuality and recognize the importance of finding a supportive peer group to belong to at the same time
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 the care and support they receive from their primary caretakers – namely their parents and extended family. As they age, however, the support children seek shifts to their same-aged peers and those from the same social circles.
‘Developing the ability to cultivate social relationships in our childhood years can have lifelong implications for our overall physical and emotional wellbeing’
Child development expert and author Dr. Dan Siegel 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 order to help your child build his/her self-confidence, 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 doing so with strangers.
3) Connect with your own childhood. Watching your child navigate social relationships can trigger memories of those who struggled with making friends as a child. In moments like this, you’ll want to ask yourself as a parent, “What was missing when I was dealing with this as a kid? What was helpful for me? What wasn’t?” Identifying these can 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