Middle schooler's social problems may be more than that

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  April 26, 2011 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

My 12 year old daughter "Sam" started middle school this year in the public school system, after attending a small private elementary school. During the last two years of elementary school, Sam was bullied via social isolation with one student leading a pact: "if you talk to Sam, you're a loser." We learned this late into 5th grade. The classroom environment was awful for Sam. She basically had no friends in class except for perhaps one other girl. Sam started talking with a therapist about 18 months ago as an outlet.

Fast forward: Sam very much looked forward to entering the new school as a means of a fresh start. Yet here we are in April, and her emotional and social integration is not going well at all. She is not being bullied or teased in her new school, which of course is great. Yet she is showing anti-social behavior. She likes to stay on the fringes. She still yearns for the one on one attention of teachers (a coping skill she developed when she was being bullied - the kids might be mean to her but the teachers never were). One teacher recently remarked that Sam didn't want to do group work with her peers. On the other hand Sam comes home with stories about how she and some classmate did this or that and how great it was.

I'm about to meet with the teachers en masse; I still have her in therapy, where I've indicated to the therapist that I believe Sam is stuck in the past. What am I missing? What more should I be doing? I am afraid that Sam will quickly become an outcast again at this school because of her behavior.

Thanks very much.

From: SOS, Boston

Hi SOS,

Stuck in the past? Is that really what's going on? Seems more like that whatever was happening in elementary school is still happening now because a child typically takes her problems with her. It's magical thinking to think they will disappear because she's at a new school.

I hope that at your meeting (sorry if it's already happened), the teachers can give you concrete examples of what they see in her behavior so that you have something to work with. Social isolation typically happens for pretty specific (and sometimes fixable) reasons. What does she wear? Eyeball her classmates, or the girls she'd like to be friendly with. Does she dress kind of like them or is she in a look all her own? What about her ability to read social cues? Does she turn kids off without realizing it? Does she have some nervous habits? Does she have some behavioral issues? Is she on the Asperger's spectrum? Are there learning issues? These are the kinds of questions you need to face squarely.

You're right to be concerned. Girls in these preteen years can be incredibly mean and cliquey so these problems are likely to get worse, not better. She needs coping skills and she needs a few friends. Ask the teachers to do some matchmaking for you:
Can they name one or two girls who could be likely friends? And what about this therapist? In 18 months of therapy, what has she/he suggested in terms of specific coping mechanisms? If you aren't getting that, maybe this isn't the right therapist for your daughter.

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7 comments so far...
  1. does she participate any afterschool activities? I was bullied a bit in classes, but i played on a soccer team with a few girls. I got to become good friends with them. I also took figure skating lessons and made a few friends there. once she gets a core circle of friends, things will get easier.

    my brother is on the specturm (very mild aspergers) and was bullied constantly. (sometimes violently) He also found solace and confidence in sports. He was bullied all through middle scjool but as a freshman he joined the track team, where is teammates all stood by him and are still (he's in his 30's) some of his best friends.

    good luck!

    Posted by molly April 26, 11 02:20 PM
  1. Perhaps a social skills group, either in or out of the school setting, would give your daughter the practical strategies she needs. The school psychologist/counselor should be able to help you find one.

    Speaking of groups, what are your daughter's interests? Are there after-school clubs, classes or teams she is interested in participating in?

    Posted by JLC April 26, 11 03:13 PM
  1. ITA with the first two comments. My daughter was bullied - then she distinguished herself as the Grade 5 artist. That carried into middle school, where she is known for her anime and sculpture.

    Doesn't excuse bullying though. The mom seems to be placing this all on Sam - Sam is anti-social; the teachers think Sam is anti-social. Those same teachers should be encouraging the other children to involve Sam in their activities. Does the school publish a parents directory? Ask Sam who she likes - then call those parents and arrange playdates.

    As one who was bullied from 5th - 8th grade myself, I like to think "this too shall pass." In h.s I became "the girl with the camera." Because school newspaper and yearbook sought out my skills, other kids did, too.

    After-school activities also worked wonders for my daughter. She's an advanced aikido student, and is even featured in her dojo's brochures.

    Blech - I wish I'd homeschooled, but my DD resisted it. The homeschooled kids in my city are just so warm and wonderful, as are their parents.

    Posted by reindeergirl April 26, 11 03:46 PM
  1. LW, I think your expectations are out of line. You say your daughter is not being bullied and comes home telling positive stories about things her classmates do. You label your daughter as anti-social and needing therapy because she likes personal attention from her teachers and doesn't like group work.

    Not every child is going to be the most popular girl in school. Some people are extroverts and thrive on interactions with other; other people are introverts her prefer more personal time and individual versus group interactions. There's nothing wrong with that. Your daughter sounds like me at her age. I was always something of a loner, but turned out alright.

    Your daughter doesn't need to have a huge group of friends. I say if she is happy and not being bullied, you should leave her alone.

    Posted by Marie April 26, 11 04:09 PM
  1. I agree with Marie. The LW's daughter sounds like me as well. She is telling the LW stories about having fun with other classmates, so maybe she just doesn't like working in large groups (don't blame her, really). Has she expressed unhappiness about not having many (or any) friends? If not, then I don't see the problem. If so, then perhaps an activity she is interested will help. Some people do better in a social setting when they know they have a common interest with the others. But if she is happy, has a few friends, and just happens to prefer more alone time then let her be.

    I would not ask the teacher to be "matchmaker". If anything, ask the daughter about the classmates she seems to enjoy and ask her whether she'd like to invite them over after-school.

    Posted by mk April 26, 11 04:46 PM
  1. I agree with mk and Marie-- your daughter may actually enjoy her own company over the company of others. She may have learned this in response to the bullying, or this may have been a trigger for it. In either case, it won't do a lot of good to force her to join a group of friends-- she won't enjoy it, and neither will they. Also, she may prefer to work alone as opposed to working in a group if she's academically ahead of her (new) classmates-- especially if she feels that she'd end up doing the lion's share of the work anyway!

    Posted by MNGrad April 27, 11 06:23 PM
  1. My 4th grade son has always been a kid who prefers one or two good friends, and prefers to work alone rather than in a group. He will work in a group if he must, but he's happiest at school in his own company.

    But he has also been the victim of bullying. It has been going on for years and it was always blamed on his social skills. "He's very physical." "The other kids don't understand his humor", etc. etc. He has been subjected to racial slurs, had rocks thrown at him, was held down by two other kids while a third punched him in KINDERGARTEN, etc. etc. Well this year, the teachers in school finally woke up when another kid stole his water bottle and was caught urinating in it. Several teachers and the principal finally got it - bullying is out of control at this school and my kid is NOT to blame.

    To my son's credit, he has managed to deal with all this quite well. He will never like school - he hated it in preschool because it imposes on his free time. But at least now the administration is on his side and is doing a better job of keeping him safe. If we could afford another school or survive homeschooling, we would, but it really isn't an option. But I refuse to accept that my son's personality quirks mean that it's ok for him to be the class scapegoat.

    Posted by BMS April 30, 11 09:54 AM
 
7 comments so far...
  1. does she participate any afterschool activities? I was bullied a bit in classes, but i played on a soccer team with a few girls. I got to become good friends with them. I also took figure skating lessons and made a few friends there. once she gets a core circle of friends, things will get easier.

    my brother is on the specturm (very mild aspergers) and was bullied constantly. (sometimes violently) He also found solace and confidence in sports. He was bullied all through middle scjool but as a freshman he joined the track team, where is teammates all stood by him and are still (he's in his 30's) some of his best friends.

    good luck!

    Posted by molly April 26, 11 02:20 PM
  1. Perhaps a social skills group, either in or out of the school setting, would give your daughter the practical strategies she needs. The school psychologist/counselor should be able to help you find one.

    Speaking of groups, what are your daughter's interests? Are there after-school clubs, classes or teams she is interested in participating in?

    Posted by JLC April 26, 11 03:13 PM
  1. ITA with the first two comments. My daughter was bullied - then she distinguished herself as the Grade 5 artist. That carried into middle school, where she is known for her anime and sculpture.

    Doesn't excuse bullying though. The mom seems to be placing this all on Sam - Sam is anti-social; the teachers think Sam is anti-social. Those same teachers should be encouraging the other children to involve Sam in their activities. Does the school publish a parents directory? Ask Sam who she likes - then call those parents and arrange playdates.

    As one who was bullied from 5th - 8th grade myself, I like to think "this too shall pass." In h.s I became "the girl with the camera." Because school newspaper and yearbook sought out my skills, other kids did, too.

    After-school activities also worked wonders for my daughter. She's an advanced aikido student, and is even featured in her dojo's brochures.

    Blech - I wish I'd homeschooled, but my DD resisted it. The homeschooled kids in my city are just so warm and wonderful, as are their parents.

    Posted by reindeergirl April 26, 11 03:46 PM
  1. LW, I think your expectations are out of line. You say your daughter is not being bullied and comes home telling positive stories about things her classmates do. You label your daughter as anti-social and needing therapy because she likes personal attention from her teachers and doesn't like group work.

    Not every child is going to be the most popular girl in school. Some people are extroverts and thrive on interactions with other; other people are introverts her prefer more personal time and individual versus group interactions. There's nothing wrong with that. Your daughter sounds like me at her age. I was always something of a loner, but turned out alright.

    Your daughter doesn't need to have a huge group of friends. I say if she is happy and not being bullied, you should leave her alone.

    Posted by Marie April 26, 11 04:09 PM
  1. I agree with Marie. The LW's daughter sounds like me as well. She is telling the LW stories about having fun with other classmates, so maybe she just doesn't like working in large groups (don't blame her, really). Has she expressed unhappiness about not having many (or any) friends? If not, then I don't see the problem. If so, then perhaps an activity she is interested will help. Some people do better in a social setting when they know they have a common interest with the others. But if she is happy, has a few friends, and just happens to prefer more alone time then let her be.

    I would not ask the teacher to be "matchmaker". If anything, ask the daughter about the classmates she seems to enjoy and ask her whether she'd like to invite them over after-school.

    Posted by mk April 26, 11 04:46 PM
  1. I agree with mk and Marie-- your daughter may actually enjoy her own company over the company of others. She may have learned this in response to the bullying, or this may have been a trigger for it. In either case, it won't do a lot of good to force her to join a group of friends-- she won't enjoy it, and neither will they. Also, she may prefer to work alone as opposed to working in a group if she's academically ahead of her (new) classmates-- especially if she feels that she'd end up doing the lion's share of the work anyway!

    Posted by MNGrad April 27, 11 06:23 PM
  1. My 4th grade son has always been a kid who prefers one or two good friends, and prefers to work alone rather than in a group. He will work in a group if he must, but he's happiest at school in his own company.

    But he has also been the victim of bullying. It has been going on for years and it was always blamed on his social skills. "He's very physical." "The other kids don't understand his humor", etc. etc. He has been subjected to racial slurs, had rocks thrown at him, was held down by two other kids while a third punched him in KINDERGARTEN, etc. etc. Well this year, the teachers in school finally woke up when another kid stole his water bottle and was caught urinating in it. Several teachers and the principal finally got it - bullying is out of control at this school and my kid is NOT to blame.

    To my son's credit, he has managed to deal with all this quite well. He will never like school - he hated it in preschool because it imposes on his free time. But at least now the administration is on his side and is doing a better job of keeping him safe. If we could afford another school or survive homeschooling, we would, but it really isn't an option. But I refuse to accept that my son's personality quirks mean that it's ok for him to be the class scapegoat.

    Posted by BMS April 30, 11 09:54 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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