Dr. Bob: I’m struggling to help my elementary school aged child connect with friends outside of school. There are many reasons for this. My husband and I both work long hours, so we often need the weekends to relax and reconnect as a family. We also live in a rural area, so we don’t have the “built in friends” that neighborhood living often provides. I am also finding it difficult to connect with other parents, which is a further barrier to outside-of-school connections. Do you have any strategies for helping to build relationships outside of school to help build social skills and connection?
Answer: Multiple conflicting issues are at play here. Both of the parents work long hours which in itself is a very taxing situation. I suspect that each day after work (with all of the factors that need to be addressed) that you are both tired but have to prepare dinner, wind down, and spend time with children for the schoolwork, bathing and bedtime preparations. Sometimes there are some lingering work issues that also complicate matters. And then you both do it again for five days in a row. When the weekend rolls around, it is time for relaxation and family connection time. Yet social connections with others that will enhance the interactions for the children are difficult to establish because of time and distance obstacles.
So, how to connect with other parents to further social connections for the family and children? I would make the following suggestions – 1) look at ways that work burdens for the parents can be staggered (instead of overlap) so one of the parents can try during the week (or at different times in the month) to set up special activities for the children; 2) if grandparents (or aunts/uncles) can assist, maybe they can help arrange for special activities even if this is only infrequent; 3) look at the family priorities regarding extracurricular activities for the children and make an extra effort to tackle the items of high priority instead of trying to accomplish too many; 4) special measures might be needed to connect with other parents and their children, such as movies, bowling, parks, picnics and/or other activities. Involve the children in this planning to demonstrate the earnest efforts to expand horizons given the rural setting of the home; 5) it is particularly important for both parents to be in agreement about the path forward. Any outward disagreements are easily sensed by the children, and they might perceive that they are the problem. It is hard to keep these discussions private, but it is vital to maintain family and marital harmony.
The above suggestions might be easy to say and hard to do but I suspect that a fresh approach might yield some success. Do remember that your children will only be under your immediate umbrella for what will feel like only a fleeting moment in time when they become adults and move away. Cherish those moments and seek unique solutions for what might seem like an insurmountable problem given all that goes on in our busy lives. The rewards will be immeasurable.
Dr. Saul is Professor of Pediatrics (Emeritus) at Prisma Health and his website is mychildrenschildren.com. Contact Dr. Bob at email@example.com