WFU professors suggest ways children can find social niche

The ups and downs of social acceptance and rejection can make starting a new school year an emotional roller coaster. Children in a new environment, such as a new school or a new class, sometimes struggle to fit in. Two Wake Forest University professors provide suggestions for how children can cope while searching for their social niche.

Parents, students and teachers should understand the strong need children have for acceptance, said Mark Leary, professor of psychology and author of several books, including “Social Anxiety” and “Interpersonal Rejection.”

“In our evolutionary past, we had to stick together to survive,” Leary said. “We had to be a member of a group. So, we are primed to feel negative emotions when we feel disconnected from others because it is a signal to us that we are not as integrated as we want to be.”

According to Leary, children are most likely to be accepted by their peers if they show interest in another person. Making the other person feel valued is most likely to make you a valuable part of their social network.

Showing interest in another person also makes a socially anxious person feel more at ease. In a study he conducted, Leary found that socially anxious people did better when given the task of finding out about a stranger. They felt more relaxed and the stranger felt more relaxed.

Samuel T. Gladding, chairman of the counseling department at Wake Forest, suggests that being attuned to their surroundings can help children find ways to make friends. “Notice if someone is sitting alone and take the opportunity to connect with that one person,” Gladding said. “Or, share a pencil with someone who has forgotten one. An act of kindness, such as sharing, is always welcomed. If you show kindness to others, more than likely, they will show it back.”

Humor, particularly if it is directed at oneself and does not put down others, can also encourage positive responses from classmates, Gladding said.

During the school years, friendships involve not so much a verbal connection, but an activity connection to get them going and growing, said Gladding, who has written several books on counseling and is the president-elect of the American Counseling Association. “Doing cooperative rather than competitive activities is a good way to build social connections.”

Working together on a project that benefits others can help forge bonds between children and foster friendships, he said.

“You don’t need to compete with the extraverts. You can be quiet, understanding, empathic and still find a social niche,” said Leary, who has two children. “Make those skills work for you.”

If a child is having a difficult time fitting in, sometimes less is more, said Gladding, who has three children. “Kids can try too hard and unintentionally set themselves up for rejection.”

Students should not despair if one social group ignores them. Leary and Gladding encourage them to move on to find their own niche.

“Not everyone is going to accept you and that is okay,” Leary said. “Finding your social niche can be trial and error.”

“Don’t think, ‘I have to have Tommy as my friend,’” Gladding said. “Tommy might not make a good friend, so don’t overlook others who might.”

To help their children handle rejection, parents can help them learn positive self-talk messages “to remind them that just because one person does not like them, it does not mean that they are not likable,” Gladding said.

Parents can also encourage children to do something constructive on their own, such as reading a book or learning a new skill, while they continue to work on social activities.

In general, Gladding suggests parents stay in the background, but if a child seems extremely depressed or isolated, refuses to go to school or social events, or is extremely anxious, parents should step in. School counselors can help by involving a child in a “friendship group” or helping the child find a club or activity to participate in. School counselors also often train peer helpers, children who help children.

“These peer helpers can open up doors for kids who are on the outside of activities and friendship networks,” Gladding said.

Categories: Faculty, Research