THE EVERYDAY LIVES OF CHILDREN: Normal Social Pain
Every morning when the buses pull up in front of an elementary,
middle, or high school building, an extraordinary social drama unfolds. Most adults miss the importance of this opening act of the school day, because it is a daily theater,
apparently so predictable that grown-ups are not alert to its intensity. But kids get off the bus with their minds geared not to Spanish, spelling, or computer class, but to seeing their friends. They're ready for the curtain to rise on the action of the day--for the conflict and connection of social life.
Children suffer when they are teased or excluded or have a fight with a friend--and parents suffer emphatically right along with them. Our job is to bear that pain and also to put it in perspective. After all, we lived through cliques and betrayals and heartaches, and our children will too. Of course, there are things we can do to ease the pain--
theirs and ours--but our first job is to take a deep breath and trust in children's resilience and in the process of human development.
The social troubles children face are so predictable and inevitable that it is hard to call them traumas. Nevertheless,
they do hurt and they do sap a child's confidence. Losing a friend, having a secret betrayed, and being teased are just a few examples. As parents, we want desperately to help children escape these hard lessons of life, or at least master them when they do happen. We know that lectures don't really work, but we keep giving them anyway, just in case. We aren't sure what else to do. We also know that our own endless worrying doesn't help, but we have a hard time turning it off.
Research shows that the majority of kids fall somewhere in the middle of the social hierarchy. Their status ranges from basically accepted to well liked to wildly popular. For these children, intense social issues (and pain) are still prevalent.
In fact, pressures and conflicts are universal as kids deal with clashes among the individual, the friendship pair,
and the group. Most of the answers to the questions in this section begin with reassurance. Our goal is to help adults understand such factors as temperament, group dynamics,
and child development. Our hope is that a better understanding of these things will provide some perspective, a dose of optimism, and a little relief from the anxiety we feel.
Parents and other adults all have their own painful memories of social struggles. These memories are triggered when children hand over their pain to their parents. It's hard to separate the new pain of your child's present from the old pain of your own school days. It's a bit like getting your toe stepped on when it's already broken.
When we label much of what you worry about as "normal"
social pain, we do not in any way mean to trivialize it.
The pain we feel when we lose a loved one is universal too--
and therefore "normal." But that does not lessen its sting. In fact, knowing that something is universal, that you and your child are not the only people who ever went through this pain, can be powerfully comforting.
If you read between the lines as you look over the questions in this section, you'll see that more often than not, what parents and teachers are really asking is this: "Is my child normal?" "Are the children in my class normal?" There is often a great deal of anxiety and concern behind these questions.
Much uncertainty and anxiety comes from a lack of experience about how normal it is for children to be in pain,
or how normal it is for children to be so difficult for adults to understand and to handle. Normal children are not wonderful every minute. Their friendships aren't always a scene on a Hallmark card. In fact, they throw us all kinds of curve balls. I often share with parents this quote from the brilliant child psychiatrist D. W. Winnicott in his book The Child,
The Family, and the Outside World, "What is the normal child like? Does he just eat and grow and smile sweetly? No,
that is not what he is like. A normal child, if he has confidence in his father and mother, pulls out all the stops. In the course of time he tries out his power to disrupt, to destroy, to frighten, to wear down, to waste, to wangle and to appropriate.
Everything that takes people to the courts (or to the asylums,
for that matter) has its normal equivalent in infancy and early childhood (and in adolescence), in the relation of the child to his own home. If the home can stand up to all the child can do to disrupt it, he settles down to play; but business first, the tests must be made."
We have to bear the pain that our children share with us,
pain that might break our hearts or annoy us or remind us of our own horrible peer experiences. And we have to keep a sense of perspective about all that pain. Indeed, the first rule of worrying as a parent is to take the long view.
There is a story about an anxious first-time mother who called her baby's pediatrician constantly, sometimes several times a day. After a couple of months of this, he asked to see her. This is what he said: "Mrs. Smith, you have given birth to a child. You have opened yourself up to a lifetime of worry. You have to pace yourself." Kids, too, need to learn to pace themselves in the long-distance race of growing up.
In the first of the two case studies that follow, you will meet a mother who learned to manage her worry and to promote,
rather than anguish about, her child's friendships.
The second case study in this section will introduce you to Karen, a young adult, and her reflections about the complex interplay of identity, friendship, and popularity during adolescence. Karen's ability to look back on her own social life helps her make sense of a struggle that was hard to understand when she was living through it. We hope her view will give you added perspective on your own children's experiences in the world of friendship and popularity.
From the Hardcover edition.