What to Do When Your Child Struggles to Make Friends
Some kids are natural friend makers. They seem to enter new situations with ease and manage to find the friendly face in no time. I recently watched a little girl do exactly this at a playground. She showed up on her bike, assessed for fun stuff going on, and introduced herself to a group of kids playing pirates. Within minutes, she found a peer a group and joined the fun.
Other kids are slow to warm up, some prefer solitary play, and many struggle to find the opening. When I run social skills groups, I spend a considerable amount of time teaching kids the art of “slipping in and out of groups”. Many kids see a group at play and immediately assume the group is formed. Some worry that they answer will be no, so they stand back and avoid trying.
Childhood might look like tons of fun on the outside, but there are always bumps along the way. We can’t protect our kids from the ups and downs that naturally occur, but we can help them learn to navigate the hard stuff.
One mistake I see over and over again is that we assume young kids have the tools to work through difficult and/or anxiety producing social situations. The truth is that kids develop social skills as they grow and on their own schedule. It’s important to carve out time to help kids work on these skills.
Books are a great way to teach social skills. Many children’s stories contain a problem and a solution within the plot. You don’t have to seek out specific books to use reading to teach social skills, you simply have to make the time and be present.
Use the pictures in the books to talk about things like nonverbal cues, facial expressions and body language. Forget the dialogue and thought bubbles, what do you think is happening based on the way the characters uses their faces, bodies, and gestures?
Play social detective.
A great way to help kids learn how become joiners is to observe other kids at play. Take a walk to the local playground and sit back to watch for a while. Ask your child to solve the mystery of how to make a new friend at the playground by watching the other kids and looking for clues.
How do kids form groups? What words do they use? What are they playing? If they argue, how do they solve the problem? Are any kids playing alone? Why?
When we talk through these “clues” with our kids, we help them figure out how to join a group and what it takes to make and be a friend.
Discuss personal boundaries.
I ran social skills groups for years. One of the biggest hurdles to friend making for the kids in those groups was respecting boundaries. Each group had at least one kid who talked over everyone else and had all the answers, one who didn’t understand physical space, one who interrupted, and one who blamed everything on other group members.
These kids struggled to understand why people have personal boundaries, both physical and emotional, and how to respect them. I’m known to use Hula Hoops to show kids how to respect the need for physical space, but they also come in handy for teaching kids about emotional boundaries. Have your child fill a hoop with words that describe their own boundaries. One of my kids really doesn’t do well with raised voices, so “no yelling” would go in that hoop. Other kids don’t understand sarcasm and teasing. When you fill the hoop with things that might upset others in a social situation, you give them a lesson on empathy and a starting point for increasing awareness of emotional boundaries.
Whenever kids struggle to make friends, parents ask me if they should increase the outside activities to create more opportunities for friend making. Sometimes that works, but often it backfires. Kids experience stress when they struggle to make and keep friends, and making new friends is no easy task when you’re stressed.
Practice navigating difficult situations when your child is calm and in the safety of your own home. Role-play helps kids practice new skills from multiple angles and rework strategies that don’t feel right.
1:1 play dates can also be a great starting point, but be sure that your child chooses the friend. All too often we throw kids together due to existing friendships between the parents or convenience, but this isn’t fair to the kids. If your child struggles to make friends, get to know what kinds of things your child likes to do and help her find a friend with similar interests.