Helping Kids Navigate Playground Politics

Helping Kids Navigate Playground Politics

School is back in session, and families are settling into routines. Children are back in the classroom, reuniting with friends, meeting new people, and getting used to their new social environment. During these early months of school, it’s not uncommon for certain dynamics to cause challenges for young children.

Typically this happens in less-supervised areas, like the playground. It’s common for children to come home and tell their parents things like:

  • “I was told there wasn’t enough room for me to join the game all the other kids were playing at recess.”
  • “A boy in my class keeps punching me at lunch when he thinks nobody is looking.”
  •  “A girl in another class keeps calling me names in front of my friends, and I hate it!”

But there’s good news: Parents can help their children navigate day-to-day playground politics by teaching them social-emotional skills—such as empathy, emotion management, and problem-solving.

Building Social Emotional Skills to Deal with Playground Politics.

Empathy

Empathy helps children understand or feel what another person is feeling by putting themselves in the other person’s shoes. Empathy can also help create self-awareness that allows children to distinguish their feelings from the feelings of others.

How to Teach Empathy to Kids

The most powerful way to encourage empathy is to model it. For example, when your child is hurt, disappointed, frustrated, or has a strong emotion, you might model showing empathy by saying, “Oh no, you sound sad…” or “It’s so hard to leave the park when you’re having so much fun, isn’t it?” or “Uh oh, what happened?”

You can also foster empathy in your child by discussing scenarios in which it could be used. For example, you could talk with your child about how another person might feel if he or she were to see someone get hurt on the playground or in response to something that happens to a character in a book or movie.

Emotion Management

Emotion management refers to a person’s ability to control his or her emotions in response to arousing situations.

How to Teach Emotion Management to Kids

Two of the most important skills we can teach children are how to identify their feelings and how to self-soothe when they are experiencing a strong emotion. These skills take time and practice to develop. Positive self-talk and deep breathing are two emotion-management tactics commonly used and practiced with children. Teaching self-talk encourages kids to talk to themselves in a quiet voice or inside their heads. Some examples are: “I need to take three breaths,” “I can do this if I practice more,” “I’m not going to let her get to me,” “That was probably an accident,” or “My mom still loves me, even when I mess up.”

Deep breathing is an effective way to connect the body and the mind in order to move from a fight-or-flight response to problem-solving. The “Flower Breath” is a simple breathing method kids can use. Ask your children to imagine smelling a beautiful flower, breathing in through the nose and breathing out through the mouth, and releasing any stress, strain, or emotion they might be feeling as they exhale.

Problem Solving

Teaching problem-solving means helping kids learn to recognize a social problem, focus on finding solutions, predict consequences, and select a safe and respectful solution.

How to Teach Problem Solving to Kids

When challenges arise with other children, ask your children a series of questions to help them think through the problem. Eventually they’ll be able to ask the questions for themselves. Questions to consider when teaching problem solving are:

•   “What happened?” 

This allows each child to tell his or her story and feel heard before solutions are brainstormed.

•  “How did that feel?” 

Helping kids get clear about how they feel will help clarify what they actually want or need.

·      •  “What did you want/need?” 

Many times we can read situations inaccurately. Asking this question helps focus the brainstorming solutions.

•  “What are other ways to get what you want/need?” 

Let your children brainstorm two or three ideas. It’s okay if they’re not all great ideas! This is just brainstorming. If they can’t come up with ideas on their own, offer them two choices that align with your family’s values.

•  “How would that work for you?” or “What will happen if you try …?”

This is an opportunity to evaluate each of the proposed solutions.

•  “What are you going to do now?” or “What will you try next time?” 

By asking this question, you allow your child to choose how to act differently next time. Expressing a future action out loud increases the likelihood your child will try it.

Managing social dynamics in a school setting can be very stressful for children and their parents. Social-emotional skills can help children de-escalate a conflict, advocate for themselves, and find more acceptable, safe, and socially appropriate ways of getting their needs met when they may be feeling bullied or dismissed.


About the Author: Melissa Benaroya

Melissa Benaroya, LICSW, is a Seattle-based parent coach, speaker and author in the Seattle area (MelissaBenaroya.com). She created the Childproof Parenting online course and is the co-founder of GROW Parenting and Mommy Matters. Melissa provides parents with the tools and support they need to raise healthy children and find more joy in parenting. Melissa offers parent coaching and classes and frequently speaks at area schools and businesses. Check out Melissa’s blog for more great tips on common parenting issues and Facebook for the latest news in parent education!

5 Comments

Anita

I love these questions!! I’m searching for how to help kids during recess or lunch when they run into challenges with each other.

Reply
Paramanantham

Thank you very much for your recent articles,
question need to be answered that Is there any relationship between Anxiety and coldness on legs.
Thank you

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Anxiety can cause more general changes in body temperature, but it would be worth getting this particular symptom checked by a doctor to make sure there is nothing else that might be causing this.

Reply
Shweta Mg

No cold legs are to do with blood vascular nature and body temperature regulation and feed back, and anxiety is just a disproportionate fear to a stimulant or aggression that the fore brain, primitive fore brain and other primitive behavior regulatory mechanisms allow the individual to experience.
However proverbially and colloquially only by language,they have been associated as in sayings of ” he/ she has the jitters and cold feet.”
My grandfather used to tell me, and I’m Indian myself that Sanskrit and Hindi or even Japanese or other old world texts had words for every associated psychological feeling that English a mixed derived language ( which is of course easy today) lacks to describe. It’s why proverbs a group of words to make phrases have to describe one feeling.

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When you can’t cut out (their worries), add in (what they need for felt safety). 

Rather than focusing on what we need them to do, shift the focus to what we can do. Make the environment as safe as we can (add in another safe adult), and have so much certainty that they can do this, they can borrow what they need and wrap it around themselves again and again and again.

You already do this when they have to do things that don’t want to do, but which you know are important - brushing their teeth, going to the dentist, not eating ice cream for dinner (too often). The key for living bravely is to also recognise that so many of the things that drive anxiety are equally important. 

We also need to ask, as their important adults - ‘Is this scary safe or scary dangerous?’ ‘Do I move them forward into this or protect them from it?’♥️
The need to feel connected to, and seen by our people is instinctive. 

THE FIX: Add in micro-connections to let them feel you seeing them, loving them, connecting with them, enjoying them:

‘I love being your mum.’
‘I love being your dad.’
‘I missed you today.’
‘I can’t wait to hang out with you at bedtime 
and read a story together.’

Or smiling at them, playing with them, 
sharing something funny, noticing something about them, ‘remembering when...’ with them.

And our adult loves need the same, as we need the same from them.♥️
Our kids need the same thing we do: to feel safe and loved through all feelings not just the convenient ones.

Gosh it’s hard though. I’ve never lost my (thinking) mind as much at anyone as I have with the people I love most in this world.

We’re human, not bricks, and even though we’re parents we still feel it big sometimes. Sometimes these feelings make it hard for us to be the people we want to be for our loves.

That’s the truth of it, and that’s the duality of being a parent. We love and we fury. We want to connect and we want to pull away. We hold it all together and sometimes we can’t.

None of this is about perfection. It’s about being human, and the best humans feel, argue, fight, reconnect, own our ‘stuff’. We keep working on growing and being more of our everythingness, just in kinder ways.

If we get it wrong, which we will, that’s okay. What’s important is the repair - as soon as we can and not selling it as their fault. Our reaction is our responsibility, not theirs. This might sound like, ‘I’m really sorry I yelled. You didn’t deserve that. I really want to hear what you have to say. Can we try again?’

Of course, none of this means ‘no boundaries’. What it means is adding warmth to the boundary. One without the other will feel unsafe - for them, us, and others.

This means making sure that we’ve claimed responsibility- the ability to respond to what’s happening. It doesn’t mean blame. It means recognising that when a young person is feeling big, they don’t have the resources to lead out of the turmoil, so we have to lead them out - not push them out.

Rather than focusing on what we want them to do, shift the focus to what we can do to bring felt safety and calm back into the space.

THEN when they’re calm talk about what’s happened, the repair, and what to do next time.

Discipline means ‘to teach’, not to punish. They will learn best when they are connected to you. Maybe there is a need for consequences, but these must be about repair and restoration. Punishment is pointless, harmful, and outdated.

Hold the boundary, add warmth. Don’t ask them to do WHEN they can’t do. Wait until they can hear you and work on what’s needed. There’s no hurry.♥️
Recently I chatted with @rebeccasparrow72 , host of ABC Listen’s brilliant podcast, ‘Parental as Anything: Teens’. I loved this chat. Bec asked all the questions that let us crack the topic right open. Our conversation was in response to a listener’s question, that I expect will be familiar to many parents in many homes. Have a listen here:
https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/parental-as-anything-with-maggie-dent/how-can-i-help-my-anxious-teen/104035562
School refusal is escalating. Something that’s troubling me is the use of the word ‘school can’t’ when talking about kids.

Stay with me.

First, let’s be clear: school refusal isn’t about won’t. It’s about can’t. Not truly can’t but felt can’t. It’s about anxiety making school feel so unsafe for a child, avoidance feels like the only option.

Here’s the problem. Language is powerful, and when we put ‘can’t’ onto a child, it tells a deficiency story about the child.

But school refusal isn’t about the child.
It’s about the environment not feeling safe enough right now, or separation from a parent not feeling safe enough right now. The ‘can’t’ isn’t about the child. It’s about an environment that can’t support the need for felt safety - yet.

This can happen in even the most loving, supportive schools. All schools are full of anxiety triggers. They need to be because anything new, hard, brave, growthful will always come with potential threats - maybe failure, judgement, shame. Even if these are so unlikely, the brain won’t care. All it will read is ‘danger’.

Of course sometimes school actually isn’t safe. Maybe peer relationships are tricky. Maybe teachers are shouty and still using outdated ways to manage behaviour. Maybe sensory needs aren’t met.

Most of the time though it’s not actual threat but ’felt threat’.

The deficiency isn’t with the child. It’s with the environment. The question isn’t how do we get rid of their anxiety. It’s how do we make the environment feel safe enough so they can feel supported enough to handle the discomfort of their anxiety.

We can throw all the resources we want at the child, but:

- if the parent doesn’t believe the child is safe enough, cared for enough, capable enough; or

- if school can’t provide enough felt safety for the child (sensory accommodations, safe peer relationships, at least one predictable adult the child feels safe with and cared for by),

that child will not feel safe enough.

To help kids feel safe and happy at school, we have to recognise that it’s the environment that needs changing, not the child. This doesn’t mean the environment is wrong. It’s about making it feel more right for this child.♥️

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