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!

4 Comments

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

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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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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