Q: My 6-year-old doesn’t like any of her classmates, or any other kids her age. She’s a really picky kid, who usually finds something wrong in just about everything. She can be really moody, and even rude at times. The more I tell her to be happy and make some friends, the more moody she gets. I have invited some of the kids in her class over for a playdate, when I know the moms and they can come too. But then my daughter just sulks, or gets nasty and runs off to play on her own. What’s going on? Any ideas or advice?

A: It sounds like your daughter’s temperament may be a factor to consider with difficulty making friends and also with her moodiness. If she feels you want to change her, expecting her to “be happy and to make friends,” rather than accepting her the way she is, the more her behavior will indicate she’s protecting herself. Chances are she might feel rejected by her schoolmates, or she believes they don’t accept her, perhaps not “fitting in” easily if she has a more challenging temperament. Sometimes children at this age don’t read social cues well and interpret their peers’ behavior incorrectly, or they might behave/react in ways that aren’t appropriate. It would be helpful to connect to the root of her behavior, her resistance to playing with the other children. I suspect her mood may be caused by sadness, a lack of confidence, and/or feeling she’s not acceptable the way she is.

Perhaps you could try saying something like: “It’s not easy being with other kids if you think they don’t like you. When things aren’t going right, being happy or trying to make new friends is really tough. I’d like to understand how I can help you.” Rather than expecting her to do things the way you think she should, you might get better results if you simply meet her where she is, accepting that she’s not happy and needs your support. No questions, only statements, connecting to the emotional root of her challenging behavior. Sometimes our expectations are not realistic, or set for success, requiring us to adjust to what fits our child’s temperament and stage of development. Children at this age struggle with how and where they fit in, becoming more independent from their parents. How that manifests depends a great deal on each individual temperament.

Q: I have a 16-year-old son who has gotten into some trouble. Nothing criminal, but enough so the police had to get involved, which scared us. He was disrespectful to them and also to my husband (his father) when we sat down with him to talk about what happened. He is always kind and sensitive with me, because whenever we have problems with him, I get emotional and he hates that. He says he worries about me, but doesn’t respect or like his father. When we asked him why he got into this trouble, he said his girlfriend broke up with him. My husband told him that he’s too young to be “in love” and that it’s silly to let some girl upset him so he gets into trouble. He seems depressed and isn’t doing well in school. We can’t seem to talk to him without him yelling or cursing at my husband. Any help on how to deal with him would be appreciated.

A: My first thought is how upsetting this is for everyone and how much you want to “fix” a painful family situation. Your son is seen as the “problem” in this dynamic, and yet it’s apparent from everything you said that he’s having a problem, that he needs to be heard and understood. He’s crying out for attention, help and support. If his relationship with his father is strained, perhaps he’s looking for his unconditional acceptance and love. Adolescent boys are struggling, they’re in crisis. Some men still have an expectation of how “tough” boys should be, of what masculinity should look like, based on what was modeled to them. Your son needs to know he will be supported when he’s in trouble, that his parents want to listen to what’s emotionally behind this behavior. Whatever he did that initiated police attention indicates he’s in emotional pain. If you focus only on what he did, from a punitive position, you won’t connect to his suffering. Without making that connection, he can’t be successful and will likely do more of the same.

Of course, instilling fear can divert his behaving outside the limits again, at least for a while; however, you won’t have connected with him emotionally. That’s what he needs the most — he is very sad that his girlfriend broke up with him, and to have his father mock him about that only creates a wider gulf between them. You mentioned he isn’t doing well in school and seems depressed. Are there problems between you and your husband, or other family struggles that could be affecting him? If your son is feeling at all vulnerable, and/or depressed, he will likely retreat behind the wall of “masculine bravado” to shield his feelings of loneliness, sadness, emptiness, uncertainty, and neediness. He understands that it’s not socially acceptable to show those emotions, given that’s usually a sign of weakness for boys and men. If it’s not safe to ask for the comfort he needs, fighting with his dad offers him the one acceptable outlet for males to express pain — anger. The rift with his dad requires healing, for his anger is understandable, just as his feelings are of powerlessness, vulnerability, and loss, without a healthy connection between them.

To ensure your son’s acting out will stop, it’s crucial to create a safe space for him to express his true feelings. If you can share his lens, responding to him empathically rather than punitively, you will be more successful in his responding positively.