Different reasons might account for difficulty making and sustaining friendships. When a child struggles with communication or understanding social cues, experiences social anxiety, has difficulty managing impulsivity or experiences problems regulating emotions it can be even more difficult to connect and establish healthy friendships. See also the Child Mind Institute for more information https://childmind.org/article/kids-who-need-a-little-help-to-make-friends/.
In addition, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many children were at home and had limited access to peers. They might need additional support connecting to peers and re-establishing friendships. Children might experience apprehension and anxiety about making friends after being home and only playing with siblings. Social skills such as regulating frustration, cooperating, and focusing
might have been impacted during the past two years (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/family/article/your-kids-might-now-be-socially-awkwardand-theyre-not-alone).
As one elementary age child stated after returning to school in person, “Well dad, you have to be around other people to make friends”. So true. For tips to help your child returning to school make friends see this article on the PBS website: https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/helping-your-child-make-friends-again.
While you as a parent might not be able to make a friend for your child, you can help build and enhance social skills and provide opportunities to encourage this process. Supporting the underlying social skills that can establish and maintain friendships is particularly important when children are young.
Understood.org (https://www.understood.org/articles/en/4-skills-for-making-friends) outlines 4 foundational skills for making friends as: 1) Starting Conversations 2) Interpreting Social Situations, 3) Interacting Positively and 4) Listening to Others.
According to an article by Dr. Candy Lawson, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Development and Learning, (https://gostrengths.com/social-skills-and-school/) children need to be able to initiate, maintain and end conversations. This includes knowing how to greet, start a conversation, understand the listener, take perspective or see the point of view of another person,
empathize, read verbal and understand non-verbal social cues, including tone. They also need to develop problem solving skills and be able to resolve peer conflict and appropriately apologize.
Parents can directly teach and build social skills by modeling behavior, role-playing, and practicing skills. Ask your child “What is a friend?” and talk about shared values, interests, and choice. Help your child identify the values and traits that are most important to him or her. Encourage participation in safe activities. Help your child find shared interests. Join clubs. Play a sport. Take a class. Set up play-dates and opportunities to rehearse skills. More tips are below.
Tips for Parents of Young children:
- Take turns practicing how to make an introduction (including rehearsing non-verbal communication such as appropriate eye contact and smiling).
- Coach and role play how to initiate a conversation and join play. If a child needs more support, develop a social script and practice together.
- Use a toy or object to approach another child and ask to do an activity together. Role play asking questions or saying, “can I play?” to enter a game, or “do you want to ___(go down the slide, play tag, build blocks) ” to start a new activity that they can do together.
- Encourage and model sharing and taking turns.
- Use books to talk about emotions and learn how to identify feelings in characters. For a list of 15 books on friendship see: https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/childrens-books-about-friendship
- Act out different emotions and take turns guessing from facial cues and body language.
- Discuss and teach how to handle peer conflict without aggression.
For very young children see: https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/227-tips-on-helping-your-child-build-relationships
Tips for Parents of Elementary School Age Children:
- Encourage learning and practicing how to introduce yourself.
- Talk about the goal of conversations with peers. Encourage children to ask questions to get to know the peer better, find out if they have shared or common interests. Help children understand that more you talk, the more you will get to know if someone might be a person that you want to be friends with.
- Practice how to keep conversations going using open ended questions. Practice asking related follow-up questions.
- Try to find something in common.
- Point out and build awareness about non-verbal communication.
- Demonstrate and act out different emotions to help teach identification of emotions and facial and body cues. Talk about how different body language might be interpreted by others. Practice in the mirror.
- Discuss and practice perspective taking. How would you feel if? How would you know if your friend was comfortable? Sad?
- It can help to approach another child who is alone rather than in a group. Offer to help someone. Offer an invitation to join in an activity.
- Focus on getting to know the new friend and take your time before rushing to be “best friends.”
Acknowledge that it takes courage to talk to someone new and make a new friend. Reflect and validate feelings and show confidence that your child or teen will be able to develop friendships. If your child is shy, this can be a challenge. If your child has an ASD or social anxiety, making friends might be even more difficult and require additional support and strategies.
It is important to understand your individual child and his or her needs and concerns about friendships. Some children are more introverted and like time alone. Other children want to make friends and have more challenges One or two good friends is all many children need. Check your expectations and what is reasonable and desired by your child.
Helping your Child Maintain friendships
Help your child identify behaviors that can hinder or end friendships. Talk about DO and DON’T behaviors.
DO: Communicate and spend time together. Be kind. Celebrate accomplishments and good news. Be empathetic. Listen. Take turns sharing. Ask about your friend more than telling about yourself. Support when something is difficult.
DON’T: Talking behind someone’s back. Being Bossy. Breaking a promise. Asking another friend to take sides. Leaving someone out. Being competitive or jealous of your friend. Embarrassing your friend.
If your child needs additional support to build social skills and develop friendships it can be helpful to reach out to your school counselor or talk with a child therapist for targeted strategies.