Your kids: Social Wellness
Updated: Mar 10, 2022
Last week, we talked about Physical Wellness
This week, we'll look at Social Wellness
This is the second of four articles looking at the different part of Wellness, what they are and how they benefit your children. Each article will end with suggestions how to bring more of that wellness to your kids' (and your) lives.
What is Social Wellness?
Human beings are social animals. However, there is no one definitive cookie-cutter answer to what ‘being social’ should look like for every individual. Each person has their own degree of need for socialness, for interaction with others, for connections, as well as for their preferred mode of communications. For some, it may look like 5,277 Facebook contacts and juggling 4 different events each night. For others, it might be a monthly book club meeting with their four favorite friends. And for another it might mean chat room involvement. Social wellness includes one’s ability to make friends as well their sense of belonging. For me, part of my social wellness is feeling as part of a community. It gives me peace of mind to know that I am surrounded by like-minded and supportive friends, and that I have key people I can rely on for things like kid-schlepping or ear-bending. These are people I respect and admire; they feel the same about me, and they count on me too. Having (for me, multiple) friends I share these friendships with brings me happiness and joy; that feeling of connectedness is important for me, and part of my balance.
Social connections play a role in other aspects wellness. You may feel the influence of positive peer pressure (or support) to do things that are 'good' for you, but perhaps you may not be interested in doing on your own. You may feel negative pressure to do things that you would not otherwise. The stronger your sense of self, the more connected you are to your understanding of who you are, the better you will be able to withstand these negative pressures. Part of your social successfulness lies in your ability to be true to your real self - or who you believe yourself to be - when you are amongst your friends and also when you are not.
Even the most competitive of people rely on the presence of others; in fact, maybe even more so because if you are alone, against whom would you compete, right? Recently studies have shown that when the lonely brain is blasted with stressors, the response is significantly greater than if the stressors are pushed at a brain with a buddy nearby. In fact, the brain with a buddy experienced not just a reduced stress response, but also had a much greater flow of blood to the entire brain, indicating a relaxed and cognitive response. Take away: when you are within your normal and preferred social circle, you do not get as activated by stress as you would when you are alone.
Another study showed that being alone for 10 hours can result in reduced brain activity and a stress response that is the same as not eating for 10 hours. Socially ‘starving’ hits your brain just as much as actual hunger.
Why is Social Wellness important to your kids?
Beyond what I just detailed, your child is going to grow up spending time with other people. They are going to have to interact with a wide range of personalities successfully. You will not always be there to clean up their (social) messes, and explain away their quirks. They have to be able to fend for and friend for themselves. How can they do this? You, my dear friend parent, have to step back, take off the training wheels, let go of the seat, and let them do it on their own.
Social skills help your kids have positive relationships with others. With their peers, with other adults, with strangers … social skills are more than just social acceptance, also extending to better educational and career outcomes, a general greater success level in life (rated by whom, I don’t know, but … studies say), and stronger friendships and relationships. Social situations also give kids experience with problem solving skills, conflict resolution and communication skills. And, better, great social successes help kids to feel less stress and correlate with reduced substance abuse problems.
Beyond the basics of ‘being nice’, social skills include sharing, cooperating, listening, and following directions as well as respecting the personal space of others. Social skills also improve behavior when in learning situations; better behavior in the classroom helps enhance learning and is directly related to greater academic successes.
What are some things you can do with your kids to help them embrace better social wellness? We can we encourage them to do:
1. We Foreign Service families move often. This can be a problem for those of our kids who might not be as socially flexible, and potentially not react positively to new social situations or challenges. Your kids might suffer from social challenges that they don't want to bring to your attention because they know you are already dealing with other stressors from moving and relocating. When was the last time you had an honest-no-devices-allowed conversation about how they are feeling with their friends and school situation? Do they know how to say no to peer pressure they don't like? Do they know how to walk up to an unknown person and ask to join in a game? I bet they will hem and haw for a little bit but then, when they open up, they will appreciate your interest (and maybe even your inputs). It sounds super hokey, but give them the chance to role play some of the more confusing or complicated situations (e.g. saying no to a friend who wants to do something risky; telling a bully to stop their mean behavior; offer support to someone going through a tough time; meeting new people; etc); these interactions are confusing to adults so you can imagine kids might feel even more at a loss when confronted with one of these social challenges.
2. Help your kids learn to think about their behaviors. Help them ask themselves: is my social influence pushing me towards decisions I am not 100% happy with? Help your kids to develop the habit of asking themselves 'Would I do this if mom were here?' Okay, okay, there are probably a number of things they might like to do better if mom weren't there, but the reason why this question is important is because sometimes peer pressure or group mentality push kids (even adults) to do things that are either not very wise, or have a negative impact on another person or the environment, or, worse, themselves. Taking that moment to pause and really think about the consequences of their actions - or what they would feel like if their mom knew - helps them to not just flow into a bad/mean/negative action just because their friends are doing it. The thing is: as our kids get older, they start experimenting with their social self, and who they are amongst their friends is (in their eyes) very very important. They are confident and secure in your love for them; they are not so confident in how their friends and the rest of their social sphere view them.
3. Help your kids understand that being a bully is not cool. Bullies are not fun people. Being mean to others, belittling them, making them feel badly about themselves ... none of these things are okay nor make the bully seem ‘more cool’. None of these things are acceptable. It is not okay in person, not through tech, nor any other way. Bullies are sad people, who pull others down to have company on their level. They are unhappy, probably have social and/or family issues, and they are mean to others as a poor attempt to somehow make themselves feel or look better. Instead, what IS cool is sticking up for others. It is 100% better to be known as the kid that sticks up for others than to be the one that they talk about being mean.
4. Much to my boys’ annoyance (because of the repetition, not because of the idea), I often say ‘One can never have too many friends’. I really really believe this to be true. How do I encourage them to facilitate these friendships? Be nice to the new kid; it is most likely not their choice to be the new kid, and almost guaranteed they have redeeming qualities. Include the difficult kid in the games; they want to play, too. If there are kids who have difficulty with English language skills, forgot their lunches, didn't bring their towel on swimming day ... extend the offer to help them out somehow. I repeat: one can never have too many friends.
5. How many times have you talked to your kid about being a good winner? Sports are a regular part of our kids’ lives, some more so than others. Being on a sports team is so beneficial for your kids: any regular exercise is a huge boon, the team-mentality is a plus and this helps your child to develop a bond with another (hopefully beneficial) adult in their lives. I have seen some horrible examples of what being a poor winner looks like. I know, not everyone can or should walk away with a ribbon; I am not advocating for celebrating mediocrity. But there is also no call for being a poor winner; running around the field whooping after a goal, creating a spectacle of a 'touchdown dance', being a general pest about a final score weeks later ... it isn't necessary and all it does is foster ill-will. Playing fair, playing by the rules, respecting the other team and the decisions of the officials, encouraging teammates, and ending with a handshake all go towards having good sportsmanship. If you win, don't rub it in. If you lose, don't make excuses. Do your best, and hope that everyone else will as well.
6. Talk to your kids about kindness and compassion. Compassion and kindness are deliberate feelings and actions you take to connect to those around you. Our interconnectedness is one of the traits of humanity, proving that we are, indeed, more developed than the rest of the animals on this beautiful planet. We see people smile, and we smile in return. We see people crying or hurting and we want to cry with them. We humans like unity and value social connections, we instinctively strive to create communities, and depend on others in many ways. This ability to feel compassion and kindness is our superhero skill, one that we should use often and with abandon.
7. Play pretend. Especially for younger kids, playing pretend is the perfect way to learn new social skills. Mirror to them the kind of appropriate behavior you’d like to see, help them learn about sharing and caring when there are stuffed animals as the recipients and not real people, use your own interactions with these fun soft loved ones as examples of what direct eye contact looks like, create scenarios that may be tricky in these safe situations where you can discuss the interactions afterwards, talk about emotions and impressions and create a very real learning experience without even leaving the tea party.
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