02/05/2013 04:47 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2013

Easing Lunchtime Loneliness

My seventh-grade son has been complaining about going to school for months. He usually eats lunch alone and according to him, "it's torture." He hasn't made many friends since we moved here at the beginning of the year and he is kind of a hard kid to get to know. What can I do to help?

"Imaginary Audience Syndrome" aptly sums up the experience of a typical middle-schooler as he moves through his day, certain of being constantly evaluated by his peers about everything from the way he laughs to the color of his shoelaces.

Few kids this age understand that their peers are far too self-conscious about what people are thinking of them to pay close attention to those around them. A successful day at school is one in which you didn't embarrass yourself horribly, a cute guy or girl smiled at you and you had someone to hang out with at lunch time -- ideally, someone with social clout. It is a time of profound insecurity, all of which is only made tolerable by having friends.

Roll back the clock and try to recall your own seventh grade year, particularly the experience of getting your lunch tray and looking for a place to sit. If you had secure friendships, you would hear, "Hey -- we're over here!" You'd join your group, buffered from the indescribable humiliation of either sitting alone, or sitting at the "losers" table.

But if, like your son, you hadn't yet formed alliances, you will remember the awkwardness -- or sheer panic -- of looking for a safe harbor in the sea of middle schoolers, all (in your mind) watching you with unwavering focus to assess your social status -- or the lack thereof.

It is torture to be a middle schooler without a tribe.

Here are some ways you can offer help to your son:

  • Let him vent. When our kids deliver a complaint, it's tempting to offer fixes and solutions. Simply allow your son to tell you what he's going through without trying to convince him that things aren't so bad, or that he should simply "be friendlier." "Tell me more" will be your most useful phrase. Once he feels heard and understood, he'll be more open to your suggestions.
  • Explore clubs that he can join. Getting to know kids in smaller group settings can make it much easier for shy kids to collaborate, make conversation and forge friendships. Many schools have clubs that meet at lunch time, which would also address his worries about eating alone on meeting days.
  • Role play. One of the best ways to build a youngster's social confidence is to help him develop the skill of reaching out to others. Have fun acting out a few scenarios so your son can practice opening lines like, "Hey, have you figured out how to do that graph in Science?" or "I liked what you said today in English about that book we're reading." Middle schoolers -- especially boys -- are not known for their conversational skills, so give your son a little help in a safe setting.
  • Identify possible lunch buddies. I had a session with an 11-year-old recently who was struggling with the same issue your son is facing. I asked him to identify -- on paper -- at least two kids in each of his six classes who might be a possible lunch companion or friend. Once he had done this, I asked him to think of two or three things he knew about each of these kids that might used as conversation starters. A week after doing this in my office, he came back reporting with great relief that he had found two boys to sit with at lunch.
  • Ask for help from school staff. Many school counselors want to know when a child is struggling; with all the kids who come to them with serious difficulties, youngsters whose problems are less severe can easily slip through the cracks. Counselors or favorite teachers may have excellent suggestions for potential friends based on knowing the wider school population.

A middle schooler's worst nightmare is being untethered, wandering the rows of tables at lunch without the anchor of a friend or friends. I'm glad your son has confided in you (some kids keep their problems a secret) and hope that these ideas provide you with ways to ease his lunchtime loneliness.

Do you have a question for the Parent Coach? Send it to and you could be featured in an upcoming column.