When your child is starting a new school or grade you probably have many hopes for him. You want him to have a nice teacher who picks up on what her students need. You want him to not struggle academically. And you want him to make friends. You might be wondering: How can I help my child make friends?
It is completely natural to want our children to make friends wherever they go. For some kids, this comes a little easier than for others. Some kids always seem to struggle with new groups.
You don’t want to push yourself too much into the situation; you do want your child to develop the skills to make friends themselves.
But there is a difference between gentle nudges to make things easier, and then getting so involved that you will have to head off to university when your child goes because he has become so dependent on you to make new friends.
Why might my child need help to make friends?
Not every child has naturally strong social skills, and this isn’t necessarily a sign of anything more serious. Your child may have trouble making friends in a new environment without it being an indication of anything wrong with your child, or anything concerning in how the other children are treating him.
If your child is starting school, he may struggle to make friends in a way that he didn’t in kindergarten or with smaller children in your own home.
Making friends at school is different, and can be harder. Starting school means your child needs to be more independent from you than he has ever had to be before, and he may have some hurdles in this.
How can you help your child to make friends without getting too involved?
Making friends at school is developmentally as important as learning to read and write; probably even more so. Learning to interact positively with his peers affects your child’s confidence and self-esteem, and can help set up their social skills for life.
You shouldn’t become too involved, and you can’t make friends for your child. But it can be so hard to sit back if we suspect our kids are having a hard time with anything.
This is the start of a time when your child will more often need to learn to do things for themselves, and you as parent need to be able to let that happen.
Some easy things I can do to help my child make friends
Spend time with your child to give them the opportunity to open up with you and talk about how they are going at school and making friends. Let them know you are available to listen if they need to talk.
Help your child to practice social skills at home or with siblings or the children of your friends. You can help with things like:
- Sharing and taking turns
- Waiting, and dealing with frustration
- Talking to other children, including rehearsing asking basic questions, introducing themselves, using their manners
- Managing problems with words instead of physical responses
Have practice play dates at home and help your child to prepare for them. Explain how to be a good host, how to notice what their guest is feeling, and help them get games ready. Talk about compromise and changing games if their friend isn’t enjoying themselves.
With particularly shy children, starting out with play dates in your home is best, before moving onto those in a park or at another child’s home.
Praise your child well when he does something positive, don’t just hold back criticism because he is not doing something wrong. Experts state that kids are more motivated by open and active praise than by a lack of criticism.
This means you need to watch for good behaviour and highlight it when it happens.
Be specific in what your child has done to be good, don’t just say, ‘You were a good boy today.’ Say instead ‘You were good when you shared with your friend.’
Give them opportunities to meet new children and expand their friendship group
Older children may have trouble with specific individuals or groups, especially with shifting loyalties amongst friendships that had been stable before.
Give your child opportunities to make friends with other groups of children outside of school, or to develop other interests that might help them to open up. Look into art classes, dancing, soccer etc outside of school to give them more chances for different ways to interact with children.
When should I be concerned?
Some children are naturally shy and introverted. You might think they are struggling to make friends when in actuality they are just very happy with their own company.
It is important not to put your own expectations on your child, especially if you are naturally social. Also, it is normal for your child to be quite different to siblings, so if his older brother or sister has plenty of friends and yet he has very few, this is not a sign that something is wrong.
Some children will only need one or two friends rather than many. Other children will play happily with many children without growing particularly close to anyone. These are all normal relationships.
The best indication that something is wrong with your child is if he seems unhappy. If his mood or demeanor has changed, or he doesn’t want to go to school, or is especially clingy of you, then something may be wrong. He may not know how to express himself, so finding the solution may not be as easy as asking him what is wrong.
Talking to your child’s teacher is the best place to start. He or she will have far greater insight into how your child is fitting in with his peers, and what may be the problem if he is struggling. Your child’s teacher should also have some suggestions for specific strategies to help.
And always be open to your child that you are there to listen when he is ready to talk.