We’re half way through the first semester of school and you’ve started to notice something about your child. Maybe they get in the car with a melancholy attitude during pickup time or they’re not like the other kids that are running out of the doors with a group of friends to chase.
You’ve realized they never ask to have friends over and never beg to stay the night at their best friend’s house during the school week. You remember so fondly the days of playing outside with your childhood friends until the streetlights came on and you worry that your child is missing out on the opportunity for social growth and connection.
As we know, childhood friendships are vital to their development. Friendships help children learn how to be aware of their own actions, reconcile with others, relate and adapt to others, learn empathy, etc. And without these connections, a lot of parents start to worry about the social skills their children are missing out on.
If you’re like most parents, a barrage of questions are most likely running through your mind:
Why aren’t they making friends? Is it their fault? Is there something I can do? Is it MY fault? What if something is wrong with them? Are they socially stunted?
Of course, like anything in the counseling world, there are multiple reasons why a young person may be struggling to make friends.
The causes can range from behavioral disorders to ADHD, from social anxiety to lack of interest, from shyness to simply being surrounded by mean classmates and not being able to fit in.
Oftentimes a child, especially children that were affected by COVID, can feel that they are out of place and out of practice socially. They don’t have the social skills to interact with other children their age because they don’t know where to begin.
So as a parent or guardian what can you do to help?
4 Actionable Steps to Help:
1. Role play with social scripting
Social scripting is a technique that’s often used for children with autism, however, it can be a great way for any child to practice being in different social situations. Social scripting is essentially a children’s equivalent to practicing interview questions in a mirror. However, rather than having your child use a mirror, you’re going to be their partner. Ask them questions about how they would respond when a child is mean to them, or how they would go about asking someone to eat lunch with them. Here is a website with free printable lists of social scripting cue cards that can help get the ideas running. And remember, just because your child is practicing social scripting does NOT mean that they have a more intense diagnosis. Some kids simply need more practice than others.
2. Enroll them in activities
Have you ever heard of the “us versus them” mentality? Oftentimes we label the people that make up the “them” group in negative ways, which leads to some pretty terrible outcomes.
Even though there are a lot of drawbacks to the us-versus-them mentality, we can use the concept in our favor when it comes to making friends. It’s natural for children to group together with other children they relate to. You’ll often see girls and boys playing in their own groups, the sports kids, the art kids, the group that likes to wear capes and run around screaming spells type of kids… we naturally group together with the people that feel like “us.” It may be the case that your child doesn’t feel that they relate to anyone else, and it’s up to the both of you to figure out how they can. Enrolling them in things like dance, music, art, sports, theater, or even an after school program can help your child find friends that they relate to.
Eventually the us-versus-them mentality will kick in and your child will start to feel they’re a part of the group as well.
3. Make friends with other parents
Some of the relationships with my best friends growing up were simply because my parents were friends with their parents. The forced time together caused us children to form friendships whether we wanted to or not.
Children mimic our behaviors; no matter how young or old, they’re aware of your actions and they’re either judging you for it (teenagers) or mimicking you (toddlers).
Use this imitation in your favor by being a good friend to the child’s parents. Not only will your child see that it’s inevitable they’ll be seeing more of each other, but it can also be a way for them to learn how to be friends to children their age as well.
Having other families over for cookouts or game nights is a great way for your child to feel comfortable and feel more at ease when bonding with a new friend. Another bonus is that oftentimes it can be easier for children, especially those affected with social anxiety, to make friends with someone else when it’s in a smaller setting with a high level of comfortability and less pressure.
4. Probe your child
Talking to your child about why they don’t have friends can be an awkward conversation to navigate. They most likely feel some sort of embarrassment or shame around the topic, and getting them to speak openly about it may be difficult.
Sharing stories from your own experience with making friends can be a great way to open up space for them to share their struggles as well.
Hold off on offering advice; instead, make them feel they have a safe place to vent with you. In turn, you can ask open ended questions about their feelings, their likes and dislikes, and eventually probe them to the realization of how to go about finding different children to be friends with. At the end of the day, YOU are their safe space. Friends will come and go, but you’re their guardian or parent that can be the rock they need as they navigate external relationships.
If you think your child may be suffering from something more severe that is affecting their social abilities, take them to someone that can help. The sooner you’re aware of what’s going on, the sooner you’ll have resources to make it better.