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• I won’t know what to say if I go to the party.
• I don’t know anyone in my class.
• If I start a conversation, kids will make fun of me.
• I don’t play sports. I have nothing to say.
• Other kids don’t know I exist.
Young people who are nervous and uneasy in social situations benefit from learning strategies to make friends, initiate conversations and handle group interactions. But practicing social skills may not be enough.
Recent research has shown that many socially anxious kids actually do possess some social skills. What these youngsters lack is the belief that they actually have the know-how. In other words, the perceptions of their social capabilities are not accurate.
Children and adolescents who view themselves as unsuccessful socially must also acquire confidence skills. They need to accurately recognize their strengths, monitor progress towards interpersonal goals and know how to recover when derailed. Without confidence skills, kids can exaggerate endless social doubts and failures.
All kids benefit from learning to bolster their self-esteem. It makes a significant difference especially for socially anxious ones.
By third grade, most kids are intensely aware of popularity and social status. The desire to be cool and popular crescendos into middle school and persists until adulthood. Some young people will do whatever it takes to increase their status with peers. Sometimes, this may include bullying others, just to get a perceived edge.
The juggling for social status increases as a child’s need for acceptance, power and dominance grows. Kids often recognize their own place on the social ladder. No one wants to be at the bottom of the barrel.
Think of the social ladder in the following way. There’s the Top 15%, the Middle 70% and Bottom 15%.
•Kids in the Top 15% often have strong social skills, are very adept at reading social cues and pay attention to power and dominance. Sometimes kids in this group are mean and aggressive towards others. Recent studies have shown that children in this group get teased and taunted too, but they seem to know how to deal with ridicule. This is how they remain in the top 15%. Many other kids aspire to be in this group even though the emotional price can sometimes be too high.
•Kids in the Middle 70% know how to make friends too. They may not be as skilled in negotiating power and dominance conflicts as those in the very top group. Studies have shown that kids in this vast middle get pushed around too. More often than not, they are bystanders, or witness to the more severe bullying. Kids in the middle are sometimes in conflict over doing what’s right and what’s best for their own social status. They may want to stick up for a victim, but fear retaliation. There has been a lot of emphasis lately on empowering bystanders to do the right thing.
•Kids in the Bottom 15% are often totally ignored by other kids or bullied rather harshly. If they are bullied, they often lack the skills to signal an aggressor to stop. Without meaning to, they may reinforce the aggressor by overreacting, crying or striking back. Sometimes these youngsters get in trouble themselves, leading to more frustration and hurt.
Parents and professionals were rightly concerned about the bottom 15% of youngsters, believing them to be principal victims of bullying. Recent research has shown that while these youngsters may be targets, kids in all rungs of the social ladder can be victims or aggressors too. Attention has to be paid to all young people, teaching them effective anti-bullying measures, empowering bystander actions, confidence skills and empathy training.