School social life can be a series of ups and downs. But kids who feel comfortable socially often do better academically. As a parent, the challenge is to know just when those ups and downs are serious and how best to help your child adjust.

Kids’ increased use of technology can make it harder to keep an eye on your child’s social interactions, says psychotherapist Russell Hyken, the founder of Educational and Psychotherapy Services. “Kids never get phone calls, so we don’t hear their conversations with friends,” he says. Instead, they use instant messaging and texts to keep in contact. Kids can use that same technology to harass or intimidate classmates, behavior called cyberbullying.

With the rise of cyberbullying, harassment isn’t limited to the school bus or the playground. Children can be bullied anywhere, at any time, making it even more important for parents to keep a watchful eye on their child’s friendships and feelings. While it’s normal for kids’ friendships to undergo change, serious social problems at school can contribute to difficulty making friends, damaged self-esteem, poor academic performance, and even health issues for a child.

What To Watch For

“Parents should be on the lookout for any noticeable change in behavior patterns,” says Corinne Gregory, founder and president of SocialSmarts, a program that brings social skills into the classroom. If an outgoing child suddenly turns withdrawn, or vice versa, something is probably going on.

Other signs that your child may be struggling include becoming self-absorbed, losing interest in friends, changing eating habits, faking illness to stay home from school, and avoiding social situations she previously enjoyed. Any of these behaviors may indicate that your child is having social problems, ranging from bullying to feeling left out to not making friends easily.

How You Can Help

Parents should avoid jumping in and trying to fix the situation, says certified parenting educator Marty Wolner. Some changes in behavior are part of a child’s natural development as he transitions to a new grade or a new school. When parents step in too early it can be off-putting for the child, Wolner says. And if a child feels you are getting involved where he doesn’t want you to, or that you are monitoring him, he may try to hide the situation.

Instead, Wolner coaches parents to use what he calls active listening to connect with their children. In this style of communication, a parent allows a child to express feelings and experiences without offering reassurances, advice, or solutions. Parents respond with phrases such as “It sounds like you had a difficult day” or “What I hear you saying is...” to show they understand what their child is going through.

This style of listening can be very challenging for a parent who is used to being a problem-solver and caregiver. But Wolner says the goal is not to fix a specific problem; it is to create a connection with your child so that she feels safe turning to her parents. “You need to separate what the parent wants from what the child wants,” Wolner says. “The parents want to make it all better and the child might just need a connection. The goal is building trust, not immediate gratification. Trust takes time.”

Hyken suggests taking a few minutes each week to reconnect with your kids. “I always encourage parents to engage with children for 10 to 15 minutes of uninterrupted time during the week—even if it’s just a quick stop at Starbucks on the way to school.” But save conversation about heavy topics for another time, he says. Use this time to build trust so that your child will be more likely to turn to you when he needs help.

If you still feel shut out by your children, Gregory suggests taking an indirect approach. Rather than asking your child a direct question about her social life, relate a story about a difficulty you had at her age. “Something like, ‘I don’t know how you kids manage it all so well these days. When I was your age, I had the toughest time staying friends with anyone for any real period of time. People were changing so much.’” Finally, reinforce the message that you will be there if and when your child is ready to share.

Check In at School

Of course, another way to keep a pulse on what’s happening at school is to talk with your child’s teacher. If your child has more than one teacher, figure out whom he connects with the most, and check in with that teacher occasionally, Hyken recommends.

If a child is having a serious problem, do not hesitate to call the school counselor and perhaps the principal and ask for some insight into what is going on. “Go with the assumption the school is trying to do the best they can,” Gregory says. “You have to put yourself in a partnership position with [the school].”

If a school official responds that everything is fine and you aren’t satisfied, ask for specific details on how the school dealt with the issue, Gregory advises.

Recognizing when your children are struggling socially and when they need your help is as important as making sure they do their homework. Whether they are feeling slighted by the popular crowd or are being harassed by a bully, they can use parental support. The key is to establish a trusting relationship with your kids and the school before a problem starts so that you can support them when they need it most.

Conversation Starters

Ask questions like these to gain insight into your child’s social life at school:

  • “Who did you sit with at lunch today?”

  • “What did you do at recess?”

  • “What was the best part of the day? What was the worst?”

  • “I noticed some new kids in your class. What are they like?”

  • “How have things changed between you and (friend’s name) now that you’re not in the same class?”

  • “When I was your age, we had the meanest kid in our class. He was such a bully. Do you have anyone like that in your class?”

  • “I’ve been hearing a lot in the news about cyberbullying. Is that happening at your school?”

Protect Your Child From Cyberbullying

Technology poses unique challenges for school-age children and their parents. Bullying has become more common since kids can use computers and cell phones to pick on classmates. And children no longer take a break from socializing when they’re home from school, says certified parenting educator Marty Wolner. “There is no cooling-off period, so a child’s drama and issues extend from school to home,” he says. Taking these precautions can help protect your child from cyberbullying.

Set limits. Establish times throughout the day when your children must unplug from computers and cell phones. Most important, model the same behavior. Avoid checking your smart phone for work emails during dinner and connect with your family.

Establish random check-ins. When your child sets up a social networking account, be sure to get the password and let her know you’ll be checking her online activity from time to time.

Encourage your child to video chat with friends. If your child only communicates via instant message or text, you have no way of observing these interactions. If you’re in the same room when your child video chats, you can see the friend and observe how they interact. Just make sure he uses a computer in an open space of the house.

Agree on consequences. Let your children know that Internet access and phone service are privileges and can be revoked if they violate your trust. Make sure your kids understand what you expect from them and how you will handle any problems that arise.