Parents worry about their kids. Moms and dads want their offspring to be happy, to be successful, and to live meaningful lives. For children in school, parents define success using both academic and social measures. When parents worry about how a child is doing academically, there are numerous sources of information they can consult. They can contact teachers and/or guidance counselors; they can review report cards, standardized test results, and sometimes even websites that display up-to-the-minute information about tests, projects, and homework assignments. When parents worry about how a child is doing socially, it is not so easy to find out. Sure, parents can ask teachers and guidance counselors, but beyond the elementary years, such school personnel are fairly well removed from students’ day to day social experiences. Due to lack of other sources of information, parents often subject their children to the social third degree.
Before defining the social third degree, let me share what a client of mine said about it during a recent session. Lucia is a bright and likable 13-year-old 8th grader who describes herself as “quiet and geeky.” She spends a lot of her free time practicing the art of anime, reading graphic novels, and playing fantasy video games with online friends. Lucia was brought in for therapy following the sudden death of a close family friend who had been like a big sister to her. Mom and Dad were worried about their daughter’s mood following the loss and were concerned that she was not engaged enough with a peer group.
As I was getting to know Lucia, I asked her about her social network. She described having a couple of close “guy friends” at school. Unfortunately, both these boys live at a distance, making it very difficult for Lucia to see them on weekends. She has several friends of both genders that she talks to almost daily through an online game; these are friends she has made online and never met in person. According to Lucia, she also enjoys close relationships with her mother, her father, and her 15-year-old brother. The unexpected death of her 20-year-old neighbor had been very difficult for her. As Lucia’s response to my question was winding down, she added
I know my parents think I have no friends, but they’re wrong. Lucia, age 13
When I asked Lucia why her parents would think she has no friends, she explained that she is not a “social butterfly” like her mother. She doesn’t need to be constantly “on the go” like her brother and her father. Lucia is quite content to spend hours upon hours of her free time at home alone reading and drawing or interacting with people through the online game. She described how her parents subject her to the social third degree every day after school:
- Who did you sit with at lunch?
- Did you sit with anyone on the bus?
- Did you pick a partner for your science project?
- I heard a lot of kids are going to the basketball game. Are you going?
- The weekend is coming. Wouldn’t you like to make some plans for Saturday?
Aside from this one troublesome behavior, I was very impressed with Lucia’s parents. Despite the fact that Mom, Dad, and brother Shane are all outdoorsy and athletic and Lucia is decidedly neither, everyone seems to get along very nicely. All family members acknowledge that Lucia is different from the rest of the family in terms of her interests, and no one makes her feel like she is in any way inferior.
When I first met Lucia and her parents in my waiting room, I jumped to an incorrect conclusion based on their appearances. I expected them to be yet another family in which a young teen feels rejected by her parents because she is not like them (see The Kid You Got, Different and Delightful, and Baseball and Ballet). The parents were both dressed in khakis and button-down shirts; Lucia was dressed in grungy black jeans and a black concert tee and sported a nose ring and short bleached hair with blue tips. I was happy to learn that my first impressions of the family were completely wrong. Mom and Dad were doing an excellent job of embracing Lucia in her entirety. In fact, they described their daughter using glowing terms such as “a born leader,” “a gifted writer and artist,” “easy to live with,” “a free spirit,” and “big-hearted.” They were simply concerned that she was socially isolated and taking the death of her close friend very hard.
Once I was completely satisfied that Lucia was, in fact, adequately engaged and comfortable with her peers, I helped her talk to her parents about the social third degree. Here’s how that conversation went:
Lucia: When you ask me who I sit with at lunch or on the bus, it seems like you think I don’t have any friends.
Mom: Well, you don’t talk much about friends and you spend most of your free time home with us. I guess I am worried that you’re lonely.
Lucia: Please stop worrying because I am not lonely. I am perfectly fine.
Dad: We ask you those questions because we care about what’s going on in your life. <turning to me> Aren’t we supposed to ask her about her life?
Me: What do you think, Lucia? Should your parents not ask you about your life?
Lucia: If they want to know about my life, why do they only ask questions about friends? Why don’t they ask me about the books I read or the project I am doing for science or what I’m working on in my art class?
Mom: I see what you mean.
Dad: I guess I do too. We should ask you about all the different things going on in your life, not just the social stuff.
Lucia: That would be better. You and Mom are far too focused on socializing, in my opinion.
Me: So, let me make sure I understand this. Lucia, you feel like the kinds of questions your parents tend to ask you indicate that they are overly concerned with the social aspects of your life and not interested enough in other aspects.
Lucia: That’s right.
Me: You would like them to ask you about your life more broadly – what you’re reading and what you’re working on in school and in your art class, for example.
Me: Is it okay if they also ask you about your social life?
Lucia: If they have to. And only once in a while.
Me: Mom and Dad, are you comfortable with that?
Mom: I guess.
Dad: I guess so too.
My work with this great family raises another concern that comes up often in therapy with children and adolescents, that is, the very broad range of “normal” social behavior. Well-adjusted individuals range from having very high needs for social contact to being most content on their own. This is one of the important features of the personality dimension known as extroversion/introversion. Generally, there is no cause for concern as long as the individual in question has some satisfying and stable peer relationships, can interact successfully with peers and authority figures at school or on the job, and is content with his or her social connections. Concerns within families typically only arise when there is a mismatch between a child and one or both parents. In this particular family, Lucia is a classic introvert born to two extroverts (Dad is a communications professor and baseball coach; Mom is a marketing executive who dabbles in community theater and plays in a volleyball league). If you are interested in learning more about introversion, check out Susan Cain’s book, Quiet and/or her TED talk, The Power of Introverts.
Lucia and her parents watched the TED talk together upon my recommendation. After watching it, Mom and Dad felt like they understood their daughter better and appeared much more ready to let go of their worry about her social life. Lucia reported that she never thought there was anything wrong but that it was good to hear so many positive comments about people like her.
The primary take-away message from this post is that parents need to be mindful of the questions they ask their children because, embedded within the questions, are concerns that children will almost certainly detect. The social third degree is only one example of embedding worries within questions, but it is the example kids complain about most often in my office. A secondary take-away message is to be mindful of the distinction between something being “different” about a child and something being “wrong.” Lucia’s quieter, more introverted personality is quite different from the more social, extroverted personalities of her parents and brother, but it is not a symptom of something wrong. On the contrary, those glowing terms her parents used to describe Lucia prove how incredibly right this way of being is for Lucia!
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]