Cast your mind back to your childhood years: what made you happiest? When I sift through my childhood and teenage memories, my friends are what stand out. They brought laughter and silliness to my life, and provided a much needed support system. Friendships help you to feel accepted, and are therefore incredibly important in any child’s life.
Beyond being a pleasant part of life, childhood friendships help children develop important social skills, like how to handle conflict and sort out problems. Friends act as “partners in crime”, confidantes and cheerleaders, helping children build confidence and self-esteem. In general, children are able to make friendly connections quite easily, but what if they struggle? What can you, their parents, do to help if your child does not seem able to make friends?
Before I launch into my handy tips to help your child find their “bestie”, it is important to note that some children are perfectly happy with one or two close friends, while others need a huge group of friends around them. Both are absolutely normal! You only need to worry if your child expresses feelings of loneliness, exclusion or sadness at not having friends, or if your child’s behaviour changes. Tell-tale signs to look out for include moodiness, anxiety, anger, irritability, appetite changes, talking negatively about themselves and becoming withdrawn.
Now, let’s start with the promised tips to help your child make some friends.
Observe your child
Take the time to watch how your child interacts with their peers. Do they seem to behave differently than they do at home? Do they seem anxious around other children their age? Do they prefer to sit on the side lines and observe, or do they run right into a large group and make themselves at home? Do they come across as a bit rough and boisterous?
How your child interacts with others will give you an indication of what you can do to help.
If your child is prone to social anxiety, “hello” is one little word that could take an immense amount of courage to say, but that can open up so many doors. Encourage your child to say hello to their classmates. Who knows? That little “hello” could lead to “do you want to sit with me during break?”
If your child is socially anxious, let them practise with you or another family member at home. Once they feel confident in their greeting skills, encourage them to greet someone new and ask for their name.
Set up a play-date or two
If you have friends or family members with children around the same age, use this to your advantage. Invite them to your home for a visit, or meet at one of the many coffee shops or restaurants with epic play areas.
You know your child better than anyone else, so you know what their interests are. Why not find an activity for them to do that incorporates their interests? Making friends is so much easier when there is a common interest, because it opens up conversation in a flash! If your child enjoys sports, let them join a local team. If they enjoy painting, find an art class in your area. Let them observe a lesson that might interest them, and then tell you whether they would like to join in next time.
Take it easy!
Have you noticed that your child can sometimes get carried away and be a bit rough with their friends? If their friends enjoy this, and it becomes a game of “rough and tumble”, that’s great! However, some children don’t like boisterous behaviour. If this is the case, your child needs to respect that. Teach your child to listen to their friends, and be mindful of whether or not they are comfortable with the game.
On the other hand, if your child is the friend that doesn’t enjoy rough play, teach them that it is 100% okay to say “Please stop. I don’t like that.”
Actions speak louder than words
You are your child’s most important role-model, and how you behave in social situations will influence your child’s behaviour. Be mindful of how you speak to people around you, including friends, family and complete strangers, like the parking attendant or cashier. Your child is watching your every move, and they learn by example. If you display anxiety among your peers, your child will probably be anxious, too. However, if you smile and engage in conversation, your child will try to model that behaviour.
Take a trip down memory lane
It’s time to get out those old photo albums, if you still have them! Sit with your child and show them photos of your childhood friends. Tell them stories of the adventures you had and the memories that you now get to cherish. Hearing how much your friendships meant to you when you were a child might encourage your child to make an effort to make friends themselves!
As difficult as this can sometimes be, please don’t compare your child to yourself or their siblings. Each child is unique, and each has different social needs. Just because you had twenty friends when you were their age, does not mean that your child needs that too. One or two “no matter what” friends might be enough for a more introverted child.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Many people will walk in and out of your life, but only true friends will leave footprints in your heart.” Friendship is a beautiful part of life, and one that should be experienced by every child.
Well, writing this has given me a sense of nostalgia, so I’m off to find my photos and take a trip down memory lane.
References: Berk, L. E. (2013). Child Development (9th ed.). Pearson.