My 7-year-old boy is coming home from school reporting on several disturbing experiences. He says that other kids won't play with him and that kids hit him on the playground. He's a very smart, sensitive and creative little boy. We've seen him struggle to connect with other children. We've discussed these issues with his teachers but he still struggles.
To add to the situation I am co-parenting my son with my former partner. We have equal joint custody so we see and hear from our child in varying ways. We are very different people who handle our child's problems differently. Though we work to be as consistent as we can, we often are divergent.
How can we help our son navigate these hard situations and not confuse him with our differing parenting styles?
Dear Worried Mommy,
There is nothing like our children's hardships to make us suffer, and yes worry.
About the playground hitting: I see that you are being very proactive with the schools, and this is a good place to stay engaged. It's important to make our children's environments safe, and as ideally suited to who they are as possible.
Having done that, the next step is to fortify our kids. What is his understanding of what's going on? Just being there and letting him share his feelings can be very orienting for him, and give you more clues about the playground dynamics. Smart, sensitive and creative kids often have a more challenging time navigating the social space because they can be quite unique, and still be learning the fundamentals of social engagement.
Many communities have social skills groups where similarly aged children work on social skills with trained therapists in the context of play. This dissection of the specifics of social interactions can help children become more aware and intentional when they engage with others, which can go a long way in managing peers.
I hear that both you and your ex-partner are spending time talking with your son about his school experience, great, and that you are working to be as consistent as you can with responses. Doubly great. This kind of collaborative parenting is such a gift to kids, and not easily achieved. That no one is doing it quite perfectly, pretty normal. It also strikes me as pretty normal that he would share the story in different ways with each of you as you are both different parents. As long as he's not misrepresenting, which might indicate a problem with the overall family dynamic, you might see his differing stories as his way of getting out more of the nuances of his experience.
If the stories emphasize very different aspects of his experience, you might want to have a parent-to-parent chat earlier rather than later to get the complete story. This might help in coming up with a more coherent response. Also, it can be that you and your ex-partner are such different people that no matter how much you discuss the situation, you will still have different responses to life, and different suggestions for him.
Two things: the first has to do with him, the second with you.
He knows by now that his parents are different people. All parents are. As long as each parent's suggestions are not injurious in any way, validate this. After listening to how he might deal with the situation, you can let him know how you might do things. If his other parent has shared a different response, be open to hearing about it. You can always encourage him to try the different suggestions and see which one works for him. It is best to stay away from identifying one way as the "right" way, which will only indirectly put him in the middle of you and your ex-partner.
And as for the worried mommy, conscious parenting is HARD. Parenting is one of those places in life where we really have to learn about surrender because so much is not in our control: what happens to our child when s/he's not with us, how others will care for him/her. Surrendering, letting go and trusting are critical skills if we are to survive parenthood with our mental health intact. Whatever helps you get to a place of surrender, practice it.
Recommended Exercise: It seems like you've already experienced some letting go through the experience of your divorce. Letting go of people, circumstances, and even habitual patterns of thinking that no longer serve us is really an on-going practice, and necessary to get what we want in life. Here are further thoughts and an exercise on letting go, for some, the hardest thing to do. Try when boundaries are not enough, and thanks for sharing.
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