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Ask an Expert: Dealing with a lunchroom bully Part 2

EdNews Parent readers were very interested in the first response to this question, so we’re running a second response from another expert. To refresh your memory, here is the question:

Q. We just moved here and our son started middle school. Everyday he comes home upset because when lunch arrives, he is told by other students to go sit at the “loser” table since that is where he belongs. He is having a tough time making friends out here. I told him to talk to his school counselor but he says he is afraid of looking like a baby. He says he is a loner at the school, no one talks to him, no one eats with him, etc. He says it makes him sick to his stomach and so sometimes he cannot even eat his lunch. My son has never had a problem making friends, but then when we moved out here there was a problem. Please advise, as I am unsure what to do.

A: Your story is heart-breaking and, unfortunately, all too common; your son is dealing with “new kid syndrome,” trying to find a place in his new social group.

First off, acknowledge your son’s feelings because he needs to be heard. The physical symptoms you mentioned are caused by his social stress and are very real. Even if you know things will get better in time, this is probably not what he wants to hear right now. What your son needs is a plan, methods and strategies, he can try out at school.

The more you can frame your son’s situation as a problem to be solved instead of a personal shortcoming the easier it will be for him to deal with. You will protect his self-esteem and build his confidence. Reframe his situation as an experiment in making friends, where he can try some strategies out at school and talk to you about what worked and what didn’t.

Reassure your son that he has made friends in the past and that there are good children here as well. The key point here is to remind him that he has made friends in the past so he can do it again. Challenge him to be like a detective and find potential friends.

The new surroundings

Being told to go sit at the loser table is cruel. These kids are telling your son – in not so many words – that he is at the bottom of his class hierarchy, that he has no status yet. Every social group has its rules and norms. It may be that your son is now learning what they are. Learning to go along with the group and become accepted by the group does take time. Being accepted is a process.

Your son may be less confident or more shy and unsure of himself than he was at his old school. Other kids pick up on these subtle messages – his body language, his facial expressions and his speech patterns – and may see him as an easy target for derision.

Fortunately every school has multiple social groups, not just one social hierarchy. Finding children with a common interest is a key step to finding a place in his new school. Encourage your son to pursue his interests and activities he enjoys at school. The advantage of your son pursuing his interests is that while he begins the process of meeting other people and making friends he is doing something he enjoys.

The right way to join a new group

To successfully join a group the first step is to observe the people and stay on the outskirts of the group. He can make eye contact, cheer someone on if kids are playing a game and ask questions like, “What are you guys doing?” These are all signs that he wants to join the group and is waiting to be asked. Either he will be asked to join or not. How your son reacts to not being asked to join a group is key. There may not be a place for him in the game currently so he may be refused this time. If so, he should just watch. As long as he remains upbeat with a friendly face, eventually someone will ask him to join in.

Smaller groups are sometimes easier to be accepted into than a larger group. Your son may even look for other children who are not in a group at the moment. He is likely to have more success with a child who is by himself. “Hi my name is… Would you like to play?” might be all it takes to break the ice.

Part of your son’s social stress may be coming from his feelings of not knowing what to do or how to change his situation. Once you give him suggestions and tools to help him make friends he will regain a sense of control and empowerment. If he winds up sitting by himself he can change his mindset from feeling bad to looking for kids who may want to sit with him, or just sit near him. This will also give him an opportunity to observe other children and how they interact with each other.

How teachers can help your son fit in

Your son’s teachers can help and I recommend you speak with them. None of the children in your son’s class need to know about this so you will help him save face.

His teachers can create opportunities for your son work with other students and give him chances to succeed in social interactions. They can pair him with other children who his teachers think may be a good match with your son and make good friends. Teachers can temporarily break up and shake up social groups to create new interactions and relationships-building opportunities for your son. Such activities will give other children a chance to get to know your son and not see him as an outsider.

Keep it up, and forge alliances

Your son is fortunate to have a mom who listens and takes his experiences seriously. The next step is for the school to follow in your footsteps; they have a legal and moral obligation to keep your son safe. With the vast majority of bullying happening outside the purview of adults, it’s important that your son join alliances too. He has one with you, and with your love and support, it will strengthen and expand.

Get more advice

Read this response from Kevin Everhart, a child psychologist.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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