You think your child struggles to make friends. Some children slip into social situations and fit in snugly as if it’s always been their place. Others get in and stick out, everything awkward and wrong to their minds. This can lead children to do everything possible to completely avoid social situations, too terrified to step out of their zones. The first group makes friends easily, while the others struggle badly, leaving parents and caregivers worried that their child has no friends. No parent wants to hear that their child is a loner on the school playground or gets rejected when they try to connect. However, is it that your child has no friends, or instead not friends that you would like them to have? They might not want to be with the ‘jocks’ or the children who go to all the parties. They might have a few genuine ‘geeky’ friends with shared interests. If this is who they are, do not make the classic mistake of trying to make your child the person you wanted to be.
Parents can often view their children’s inability to make friends as a character flaw. Perhaps even reflecting on their own securities and childhoods. Unfortunately, this derails the solution mindset required to provide their children with adequate help. “If your child doesn’t appear to make friends like other kids the same age, they may just need some coaching and practice time on simple social skills,” says Dr. Kristen Eastman, who practices child, family, and adult psychology. It helps to think of it as a skill that can be taught, learned, and mastered. In the same way, you can practice sports like baseball or basketball with your child, you can also help them practice how to make friends.
Signs Your Child Has Trouble Making Friends
Shyness and social anxiety are two factors that can prevent your child from making friends. Below are some signs that your child may be shy or has social anxiety. These will lead your child to struggle to make friends. Here we discuss more on helping a child with anxiety.
- They struggle to do simple tasks in public. Shyness or social anxiety causes a child to be afraid of making even the most minor mistakes in public. They have an undue fear of embarrassment. They dislike being put on the spot. You may notice that they struggle to do something as simple as ordering their food. Or ask for anything in public.
- They’d rather stay at home. There’s nothing wrong with opting to stay at home on some occasions. Sometimes people just don’t feel like going out. But constantly opting to stay at home for almost every family function points to social anxiety. You may also notice that they receive outing announcements with dread.
- Steal themself away at gatherings. Because they get easily overwhelmed, shy or socially anxious children try to steal themselves away at gatherings. They look for a corner where they can be alone and retreat there. This makes it difficult for them to connect with potential friends.
- They avoid conversation or any form of attention. Conversation is an integral part of making friends. You have to introduce yourself, and make small talk to have a chance at connecting with people. At all costs, a socially anxious child avoids conversation and the attention that comes with it. Because of their aversion to attention, they shy away from birthdays, graduations, or any gathering that involves people. They may also busy themselves with technology or gadgets, putting up a barrier to people approaching them.
What to Do When Your Child Has No Friends
Firstly are you sure your child struggles to make friends? Having no friends is different from being an introvert with a few friends. We are not always aware of what happens at school. One of my favorite stories is of a mother running onto the playground when she saw her son standing all alone in the middle. However, her son was most confused and embarrassed and said, ‘go away mum, I’m in goal’. He was actively and regularly part of the year group soccer match. If you have a child who has no friends, check the basic things first and foremost. Don’t jump the gun and decide that it’s a personality flaw or social anxiety. Dr. Charles Sophy, a former medical director for the County of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, advises parents to look at things from other angles first. Ask yourself, “Is he sleeping? Is he eating well enough? Is he getting his work done at school? Is he being stimulated in an age-appropriate manner? Does he exercise and get out socially?” If you’re satisfied, then move on to helping the child make friends. Below are some ways to do that.
- Be their emotional coach. Good sportsmanship and teasing are prominent features of a friendship. To maintain relationships, your child has to learn to be a good sport and to understand and take teasing for what it is. Children who have emotional coaches as parents acquire better self-regulation skills. They know how to cope with bad moods and complicated feelings. An excellent emotional coach is empathetic, constructive, and sensitive. A study that looked into Parent-assisted Children’s Friendship Training found that children showed significant improvement in social skills when coached by parents. Eighty-seven percent showed improvement, to be exact. That’s a testament to the effectiveness of emotional coaching. Here we have an article on when to intervene in a destructive friendship. If they struggle to make friends it may mean that they form unhealthy friendships.
- Understand how they socialize. This is a bit like trying to diagnose the problem. This diagnosis will most likely give you information that provides valuable insights on how best you can help your child. Take the time to visit your child’s school or anywhere else that offers you the opportunity to see how they interact with their peers. Do they even try to join their peers? Do they get rejected? How did they go about it? After that, you’ll know what to zero in on.
- Start with their strengths. The best place to start teaching your child how to make friends is from their strengths. Find where their strengths lie. Do they know how to swim? Do they like animals or maths? Do they love reading? Make a list of their strengths and set out from there. Encourage them to practice, keep at it and also join competitions and clubs in school. Their strength could be what brings them out of social isolation. If you start from their weaknesses, you won’t have much to get on with. This will also mean that they are looking for friendships with like-minded children.
- Teach them to question. It’s common knowledge that people like to talk about themselves if given a chance. You just have to know what to ask and how to phrase the question. Sit with your child and brainstorm questions they could use as an icebreaker. When you find relevant questions, write them down. Then go further to role-play with your child. Let them ask some of those questions and see how the conversation might go. This real-life simulation gives you more insight into your child’s weaknesses. Also, encourage them to put what they learn into practice and provide you with feedback.
- Encourage cooperation by hosting social activities. When you organize social activities to help your child relate with their peers, make sure the atmosphere isn’t competitive. Remove toys or anything in the vicinity that might bring competition or conflict. Instead, steer the children towards activities that foster cooperation. A study led by Cary Roseth, a professor of educational psychology, explained that using a cooperative group structure helps children to develop positive social interdependence. It creates favorable conditions for working with others in groups.
- Teach and model qualities to look for in a potential friend. Better to not have a crowd than to join the wrong one. This aptly captures how counterproductive it can be to teach a child how to make friends without teaching them the qualities to look out for. Younger children pick their friends based on things they share a liking for. Teenagers might pick theirs based on social status. While these are not bad in themselves, it takes more to develop a meaningful connection. Encourage your child to make a list of the qualities they look for in a friend. Then ask them to read the qualities out loud. Go over them and discuss why each quality is important. Your well-meaning pressure for them to ‘find a friend’ may well mean that they form friendships that could be destructive.
How to Help Your Children Make Constructive Friendships
Children start to understand the notion of friendship as early as four or five years of age. They start out articulating friendship in naive terms. At this point, a friend is someone they like or someone they enjoy playing with. As simple as their interpretation of friendship may be at that age, it still conveys attachment and shared interest. They understand that friendship is about reciprocation. Helping your child make friends in early childhood ensures that they start social interaction early. Below are ways to help your child make friends. For older children who are struggling to make friends these are good building blocks.
- Provide a secure social environment. Some children don’t make friends easily because of social anxiety. A socially anxious child perceives the world as dangerous, which makes him or her afraid of interactions. As a parent, first you need to have a solid personal relationship to promote secure attachment. This provides your socially anxious child confidence and a sense of security. Then gradually expose them to a playgroup where they’ll be warmly received.
- Teach them the art of conversation. Knowing how to start and hold a conversation is crucial in social interactions. Listening, providing feedback, and asking open-ended questions keep conversations alive. In their book children’s friendship training, Fred Frankel and Robert Myatt suggest ways to help children get better at conversations. They write that parents should teach children to start conversations by trading information about their likes and dislikes. And when the conversation begins to flow, children should answer only the questions at hand and allow the other child the chance to talk. They shouldn’t merely ask questions. Teach them to offer information about themselves.
- Plan play dates at home. The good thing about organizing play dates at home is that the child will be at ease because they’re familiar with the environment. These kinds of playdates are beneficial when you have a shy child. As a parent, you want to help your child get comfortable in social situations. But at the same time, you don’t want to push them too hard. Playdates offer the opportunity to watch your child and understand how best to continue helping them. If they’re uncomfortable during playdates at home, help them rehearse before the next one. Engage in role-playing. Or find a peer your child is comfortable with within the family and pair them.
Final Thoughts on Your Child Struggles to Make Friends.
Is your child struggling to make friends, or be popular? Happiness is not necessarily being popular. One or two good and true friends are better than superficial popularity. It’s not hard for parents to go from thinking their child has no friends at school to thinking their child isn’t popular. Give them the opportunity to be in situations where they are comfortable and with like-minded children. This might mean that you have to give up your goal of being captain of the football team and instead let them join a magic club. Then support them in their initial inhibitions, wait outside or invite the club to your house.