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My 9-year-old is struggling with friendships at school. How can I help her?

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Q: I have a 9-year-old girl who has a hard time with friendships. She's a middle child and can be very huffy when frustrated. She goes to a small school with only one class per grade; she has been with the same kids since kindergarten, and she'll be with them for a few more years. The classroom has big personalities. She's often in tears about things classmates have said to her.

When I ask about the situation, she gets more frustrated that I don't believe her. I do believe that the class is a pack of coyotes; I'm just trying to determine what was happening before the situation, such as what she said or did.

Her poor teacher is overwhelmed with the pandemic. I have suggested that when people aren't nice to you, don't play with them and take a break. But because it's such a small class, she's then left out. I know some kids need a bigger school to find their people. We could switch schools, but she'll still have to learn to be better socially. Any suggestions?

A: Thank you for writing in! Even without the pandemic and small classrooms, 9-year-old friendships can be fraught with alliances, misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Add in the pandemic, an overwhelmed teacher (rightfully so), a girl who needs some skills and a few big personalities, and now you have a real mess.

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Psychotherapist Alfred Adler created an entire theory around birth order, which said that middle children are more sensitive to fitting in, friendships, fairness and being overlooked, and that they can have a hard time finding their place. Are there studies saying the birth-order theory is untrue? Yes, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

As for your middle child, let’s assess what’s in your control. It’s much more difficult to manage the teacher and other students, but you do have influence with your daughter, so let’s begin there. You can stop the detective work about who did what to whom, why and where, because it’s not working. You say she’s getting frustrated and feels you don’t believe her, so that’s not the way to go. Remember: Friendships consist of small and big slights, fleeting facial expressions and tones of voice that can be hard to read. Trying to get to the “who said/did what” isn’t useful, and it may place blame on parties who don’t deserve it.

Instead, when emotions are running high, your best course of action is to stay quiet, nod and keep a compassionate and therapeutic tone. This takes you off the hook for fixing problems and helps your daughter feel heard. As her emotions settle, you can start determining how much support she wants or needs. No one wants advice they didn’t ask for; this makes them want to do the opposite. However, asking certain questions — “Do you want to come up with some ideas for how to respond to these girls?” — will help guide you in the right direction. If your daughter says no, respect that and circle back later (or not at all). Also, reminding your 9-year-old that friendships are a skill, not a given, can let her know that growth and change are possible; this isn’t a static issue.

As you listen to your daughter, notice the patterns and details that come up often. Who are the repeated names? What are the chronic misunderstandings? What leads up to the fight? Don’t ask these questions; just listen for the answers. If your daughter needs more support, this information can be valuable for therapy circles, talking with the teacher or considering a change in schools.

You also need to have a reality check with someone who knows your family and child well. You can do everything in your power to help your daughter, but, ultimately, her classroom might be a bad fit. As a former teacher and counselor, I try not to subscribe to the idea that “some classes are just bad,” meaning some contain more difficult children than others, but it could be that very few students plus your daughter’s sensitivities equals a poor growth environment. Most people don’t have the privilege to choose another school, but I recommend widening the scope of where you can send your daughter. Does she need something a little bigger? Does she need a more supportive environment? Does she need a space where there’s a little more latitude in friendships? Every school decision comes with both sacrifices and wins; only you can decide what works best for your family.

Finally, please make sure you have addressed any issues that may contribute to your daughter misreading friendship cues (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, autism spectrum). I don’t believe such children are in any way inferior or need to be “fixed.” Instead, I worry that our culture, which is obsessed with being “normal,” will pathologize her when what she may need is a different environment or supports. Ultimately, we want your daughter to grow into the fullest version of herself, so stop doing what doesn’t work, believe her when she talks to you, listen between the lines, get more data and assess your next steps. Good luck.

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