By Jen Reisinger, MA, LMHC, School Counselor

“She wouldn’t play with me at recess today.” “I don’t have anyone to play with.” “He played with someone else today and not with me.” “I never get to choose the game we play at recess.” 

These statements are all common refrains that parents and caregivers might hear from young students as they are navigating the ever-changing atmosphere of recess and their social lives. Common as they may be, however, these comments go straight to our hearts as adults and we may struggle with the urge to jump in and try to fix it for the child reporting such a tough experience. 

Here are some tips to providing empathy and coaching for your child when they are experiencing a bump in the road with a friend:

Name their feeling: “I can hear in your voice how sad you are about this.” “You seem really frustrated, maybe even mad about what happened.” By providing empathy, you are helping increase your child’s emotional vocabulary and also showing your child that you realize how the situation has impacted them.
Practice getting-to-calm: “Your story seems really upsetting, I’m going to take some deep belly breaths so I can keep calm. Why don’t you try them with me? Our brains can work on solving problems better when they’re calm.” Practicing strategies such as deep breathing and taking a break will help reinforce for your child what they can do when faced with a problem that is upsetting in-the-moment. As adults, we understand that when we’re too overwhelmed we aren’t good problem-solvers, but kids are still working to learn this about themselves.

Get more information: Once you’ve provided empathy and you’ve helped your child come to a calm place, now’s the time to do a little investigation. Be careful of not asking too many questions, but some key questions that open up dialogue include: “Tell me more about what happened?” “Did you get an adult involved to help you?” “Did this happen today? Has it happened before?” “What did you do to solve the problem?” 

Give some coaching: Your student might need some coaching around how to navigate their particular challenge. Some common coaching might include practice on how to be assertive and asking for what he or she needs, helping your child understand the difference between tattling (to get someone in trouble) or reporting (reporting to get help when someone is hurt), or reminders on ways to be inclusive even when friends like different things. 

Make a plan (one for your child): Once you have more information, work with your child to make a plan of what they should do next. Sometimes this kind of planning could look like: “Recess is about having fun. Tomorrow, who is one person you could play with that would help you have fun?” “If this problem happens again, who at school could you tell right away?” 

Make a plan (one for you): Once your child is set with the first steps of their plan, think about what you need to do with the information you heard. Ask yourself: “Now that my child has some positive coaching, would they benefit from trying to work through this another time on their own?” “Is this a safety or ongoing issue that my child’s teacher needs to know about right away?” “Does my child need a little more time than just recess to get to know their classmate better? Would a playdate be in order?” “Which skills does my child need to work on so they can navigate a problem like this in the future? How can I help teach them those skills?” 

As you dig into a conversation like this with your child, remember that it is expected for youth to move through a variety of social changes, and even run into some bumps along the way. You may notice that your child is happy with having a close friend or two, or possibly, they prefer a large circle of friends that they can bounce between. It’s also common for children to enjoy playing on their own or using some alone time to take a break and reset. When your child hits a bump socially, this is a wonderful opportunity for them to practice the calming and problem-solving skills that will help them be successful in life. Lastly, make sure that you celebrate the journey your child is on to being a happy, kind, and compassionate friend.