Those healthy connections have been replaced by less savory bonds such as the using and abusing of social power. It may be a group of girls mutually ganging up on someone they’ve decided is annoying. It could be a boy who tosses off a cruel comment or saddles a classmate with an unkind nickname and discovers his peers become more cautious, more deferential to him.
Parents worried about their child’s social life must talk with them, said Kimberly N. Frazier, president of the American Counseling Association and an associate professor at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. Not all kids want the Friday night football games or weekday hangouts at coffee shops.
“But if their kids want these experiences, parents then should talk to them about figuring out how to get them,” said Frazier. “Communicate to your kids that you are not going to assume anything, that you want them to come and tell you what is happening. But the onus is on the parents to be uber-observant, to tell their kid that I noticed this and am wondering if this may be a sign that things are not working. That sends a message to your child that you’re checking in, but not assuming.”
While these behaviors typically occur in middle school, exclusionary bullying and relational aggression are showing up in high school. An assistant professor for school counseling at the College of Education & Human Development at Georgia State, Erin Mason says the school counselors she oversees are noting delayed social maturation. “This social delay is because students have not been in normal situations over the past two-plus years where they could experience normal social development. All of that was disrupted,” said Mason, who worked for 13 years as a middle school counselor in Georgia.
“Everyone to some extent has gone through trauma in this pandemic, and we have not really recognized what that means about our own mental health as a family or as a kid trying to just go back to business as usual,” said Mason. “Kids also witnessed the political divide happening in our country. Kids soak up what they see online and in the media. In many cases, they may be acting out what they’re seeing.”
School counselors ought to be brought into the discussion when kids struggle socially, agree the experts. Many counselors run small groups where students can share their experiences and talk about solutions.
Parents often defend their child’s decision to drop an old pal, saying the friendship ran its course. “I will say not every kid has to be friends with every other kid. We can’t manage that many friends, but what I do know is that as long as kids have one or two really good friends, they are much better off,” said Rose. “I tell teachers not everybody in your classroom has to be friends, but everybody in your class should be friendly. Teachers should give specific praise when they see respectful and inclusive behavior in action, because teaching and reinforcing these skills are just as important as the math, science and history lessons.”