THE PROBLEM: My twelve-year-old son is part of a group of four (sometimes five) boys who hang out after school. He calls them his best friends, but they often leave him out of things. If they’re going to the park to play soccer, for example, they all make plans with each other, and only invite him if he finds out (and asks). When they’re walking down the street as a group, my son always seems to be trailing behind. I honestly believe that if he got lost or something, they wouldn’t even notice he was missing! I get so angry at these kids for acting indifferent to my son, but he doesn’t seem to notice. I want to talk to him about it—feeling more confident, finding new kids to hang out with, etc.—but I don’t want to bring it to his attention if he really doesn’t get it. I’m a little stuck on this.
MARY SAYS: It sounds like you’ve given yourself wise counsel by not bringing the issue to your son’s attention. Everybody needs something different from relationships, and it appears your son is getting what he needs out of his ‘friend’ group—at least for now. It’s quite possible you’re seeing a problem that doesn’t exist.
So let’s talk about you. Where does your anger come from? Was there a time in your growing up years you felt awkward around your friends? Did other kids seem to have a more natural ability to assume a leadership role among a group of kids?
Consider how you might be projecting your own feelings onto your son, rather than seeing the situation for what it most likely is. Boys hanging out, having a good time.
From what I’ve observed, today’s children are less prone to defining themselves through the eyes of their peers. From a small age, we are now encouraging children to be who they are, rather than trying to fit in, which is a good thing.
But for the sake of argument, let’s say there is a problem. The beauty of being twelve years old is that kids tend to migrate from one group to another: they change classes—even schools—and try new sports, hobbies, and clubs. Encourage your son to engage in other activities without calling out his friends. Your son will cycle through many, many friends during his teen years, so given a little time, natural attrition will most likely take care of your concern.
After all, you don’t want to mess with something that might be working perfectly fine.
ERIKA SAYS: A few weeks ago, I came across a memory on my phone, a video of my son playing outside at daycare. I was near tears in the parking lot as I watched him follow the other kids around, playing beside them but not interacting with them. Every day after that awful day, I dreaded leaving him there.
I truly felt he had no friends.
This time when I watched the video, I realized how happy he was in the setting he was in. In fact, his behavior was right on target for his stage of development. In retrospect, I realize he was engaging in something called parallel play, when two or more children play next to each other rather than with each other.
I’m not sure why I felt so sad that day. Maybe it was my overprotective mommy senses kicking in, or me projecting my own past hurts onto my child.
Maybe it was a combination of both.
I’ve come to learn that when I’m the outsider looking in, I have to sit with myself, my feelings, and really figure out if I’m projecting or if what I’m feeling is actually true. Ask yourself: “What about this is bothering me? Was I ever in a friend group that treated me as such? Are my past hurts playing a role in how I’m interpreting my son’s dynamic?”
I’m guessing that if your son hasn’t complained about his friends leaving him out, he’s okay with it. Having a talk with him isn’t a terrible idea, but I would be careful about how much you share with him. Instead, I would ask questions about the group, such as: What does he like about them? Which one is he closest to? How does being a part of the group make him feel?
His responses will provide insights about how he really feels, and maybe you’ll learn that he does in fact feel left out.
If your son feels like he doesn’t fit in, this is the perfect opportunity to teach him how to strengthen his friendships. You can encourage him to share with his friends what it feels like to not get invited. Suggest ideas on how everyone can be included, like allowing him to host a gathering in your home and invite all his friends. Or start a tradition where they alternate hosting a monthly gathering—and everyone gets invited.
I wouldn’t read too heavily into the situation. Remember, he’s only 12 years old, coming into his own and learning how to build healthy relationships. As parents, we want to protect our children from feeling hurt, but it’s also okay to share your wisdom and then step aside to allow them to learn from experience on their own.
ASK MOM offers parents two perspectives on today’s child-rearing issues—one from a mom with grown children (Mary), the other from a mom raising a small child (Erika). If you’re looking for creative solutions, or your mom isn’t around to ask, drop in!
If you have a question for Mary and Erika, we’d love to hear from you! firstname.lastname@example.org
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Mary Follin is author of the award-winning children’s book ETHYR and Teach Your Child to Read™, an online phonics program for children ages 3-6. She is mom to two grown kids. Follow Mary on Instagram at @advice_mom.
Erika Guerrero is a freelance hair and makeup artist, Erika K. Beauty, single-mama to one amazing boy, and author of She’s Not Shaken, a blog offering hope and encouragement to women in all walks of life.
Suzanne Johnson, mom of five children and grandma of eight, is an illustrator, book cover designer, and author of Realms of Edenocht.