Q. I volunteered at my 2nd grader’s school recently, and I noticed one of the boys (“Jimmy”) was ignored by the other kids. It broke my heart. When I asked my son about it later, he said Jimmy is hard to play with. I thought I’d raised a child who would be more inclusive. Should I force my son to befriend this “outcast?”
A. It is seldom wise to force children to play together. It’s most often best to invite or set up a play date, but not to force play. Before you think about schemes, get more information about why Jimmy is being ignored. Here are my suggestions:
- Ask your son what he experiences when he tries to play with Jimmy. Ask him to describe what Jimmy does that makes him “hard to play with.”
- Talk with the teacher. While confidentiality will prevent giving you specific information about Jimmy, the teacher might put your mind at ease or give you suggestions on how your son can better interact with him.
- Contact Jimmy’s parents. Use an open-ended prompt, like “Tell me about Jimmy. He’s in the same class as my son.” This could help you understand why Jimmy seems isolated from peers, is reportedly “hard to play with” and what—if anything—to do about it. Think about what you have learned before attempting to fix this child’s isolation. You might find that the parents need a friend more than Jimmy does.
- There are several reasons why some children don’t play with or interact much with others. Jimmy could have behaviors associated with autism spectrum, which is a wide continuum with lots of differences in kids with this diagnosis. I visited a school to observe a boy who was not interacting with others. I saw him get a wagon and pull it around and around, ignoring others. He didn’t want other kids crowding him. Kids like this do best if others quietly work around them without touching or sharing words or toys. It’s a work in progress for kids on the autism spectrum, with individualized plans to increase their social skills. You could do more harm than good if teachers and parents are not involved. Or Jimmy could just enjoy being by himself. He could be shy or have elective mutism. He could have trouble hearing. Children with ADHD are sometimes, but not always, difficult for other children to relate to. I’ve worked with children who have little or no power at home and seek to control in play. One young girl demonstrated this by always having to be the person with power in her play. She would be the teacher, and the other kids always had to be the students. This could be called “hard to play with” by peers.
- Keep in mind you cannot fix everything for children.
- Encourage your child to embrace differences in others.
- Talk with your son about standing up for himself and others who are different if bullying occurs and to report it to adults at school.
- Think of life with children as a stop light. When you encounter a situation that makes you uneasy and you want to act, first behave like you are at a red light (unless it’s an emergency). So, stop and do nothing. Then imagine the light turns yellow, signaling a caution period as you gather information and ponder what to do. Then the light turns green for you to do something helpful based on what you learned.
Betty Richardson, Ph.D., R.N.C., L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.
Got a question for Betty Richardson? Email us here and you just might see the answer in an upcoming issue!