Dr Asha Pemberton
AS WE bring the first week of the new school year to a close, our young people should ideally be readjusting to routines and time management, while reacquainting themselves with the social dynamics of the classroom.
For some young people, school represents a space of discomfort due to difficulties fitting into the peer groups around them. When tweens and teens struggle socially, there is not always something medical or psychologically wrong with them. Nevertheless, the impact on their overall development and school success can be negative if they do not feel supported.
Adolescence is a stage of development, and social development, like the other domains, proceeds differently for everyone. Difficulty fitting in with others at a particular time may simply represent a difference in social developmental maturity, which with time and patience typically resolves.
Social interaction is challenging particularly in adolescence as there are so many interests that young people can align to which help them create a core group. Youth find themselves literally “trying on” different interests to find a perfect fit and this may work for or against them in making social connections.
The most frequently reported questions that young people ask themselves, when they have challenges fitting in, are: “What should I do? Be myself and stay in my comfort zone? Or pretend to be someone else? Or like other things to fit in?”
Young people also struggle with forcing themselves to fit into a larger group as opposed to connecting with one or two close friends who may genuinely have the same interests. For parents, it is important that the approach be grounded in teaching self-love, acceptance and resilience.
Adolescent development supports healthy self-esteem and authenticity. Although young people will want to connect with peers, this should not be at the expense of self-love, self-respect and being who they truly are.
For parents, these moments can be panic-inducing. It is important to remain calm. Social development, like many other challenges of the teen years, often resolves with time.
While tempting, parents are discouraged from trying to create and micromanage friendships for their teens. This is different from encouraging young people to join groups, activities and sport where they can meet new people. This is completely supported and recommended. It is quite different, however, when parents attempt to collude with other parents or even young people to force connections which do not occur
Work on your teen’s confidence. In some situations more introverted teens simply lack more robust communication skills due to lower self-esteem. This can arise for a number of reasons but is certainly amenable to improvement.
By supporting a range of social activities within and out of school, young people are called upon to engage in different social spaces which ultimately lead to improved social competence and confidence. While this requires time and consistent effort, it yields dividends toward overall social skill-acquisition.
Creativity also plays a role in supporting social development. If teens have different or unusual interests that are not mainstream, or feel really dissimilar from the culture of their school, they may make connections in safe online communities and groups. Social media and gaming, when safely used and supervised, can provide teens with opportunities that they cannot access in their daily world. This is one of the benefits of the social dimensions of gaming that is often under-recognised.
Also be aware that some teens with social challenges have unrecognised or under-treated developmental disorders along the pervasive developmental spectrum or mental health concerns. Neuro-atypical teens can have differences in language skills, non-verbal communication or restricted interests which may make it harder for them to assimilate into groups as they tend to stand out. This is not necessarily a negative attribute and should be celebrated.
All efforts should be geared toward teaching the nuances of non-verbal communication and social interaction while supporting the skills and talents of these young people.
All in all, peer connection is an important part of adolescent development, although some teens will simply be comfortable alone or in small groups. There is absolutely no concern with that. As long as young people are functioning holistically, able to engage with others when necessary for group projects or team activities, there is no absolute requirement to be widely socially popular.
As the school term begins and continues, parents should take the time to actively inquire about the social lives of their teens with a view to supporting their progress, identifying any concerns and applying support systems in their best interests.