The only way to have a friend is to be one – Ralph Waldo Emerson
How do you make new friends in your area? Some children make new friends easily. Others struggle to connect with their peers and can feel isolated and ostracised. For parents it can be very painful to watch their child excluded from play or to witness the child’s sadness at missing out socially.
Find information and advice about kids and friends, specifically to help your children with making friends.
How do children learn to be friends?
Parents have a very significant role in helping their child “fit in” with their peers. A child’s first social contact is with his/her parents. When you play with your child, you can show him/her how to take turns; how to use humour in play; how to share; that different ways of playing are okay.
Modelling is also important. Let your child see you interacting with your friends. A shy or cautious child will see that social situations are enjoyable and a boisterous child will see that it is desirable to spend time with others without physical activity. Don’t force a child to become involved in your social situation but invite and encourage them to interact at a level where they feel comfortable.
The obligatory round of kisses for all the adults can be quite overwhelming for a shy or anxious child and the attention given to an excitable child in the same situation can cause them to over-react and show off. Be aware of your child’s personality and, especially when they are very young, try not to push them beyond what they can cope with.
Preschool and young school age children learn to be friends through play. They explore and test social rules – cooperation; taking turns; being aware of other’s feelings; and not hurting each other physically or emotionally.
Tips for helping your child make friends
Talk to your child about friends. Tell stories about your own childhood friendships to explain the rules, pitfalls and rewards.
Ask your child how he/she views friendship.
Explain social rules and cues using their language:
- don’t snatch or hit
- do take turns and share
The skills of negotiation and conflict resolution are learned – talk to your child about listening to the views of others and how to present his/her own views assertively.
Show them through your own relationship that sometimes compromise is the key to success.
Encourage social interaction for your child. Don’t pressure your child – they should leave a social situation looking forward to the next time not glad that it’s over.
Arrange a playdate at your house. If your child has difficulty sharing his/her toys, try and prepare by choosing a few toys that he/she is willing to let others enjoy too. Keep special or precious things out of sight. If even this seems likely to cause problems, try choosing neutral territory for the playdate – a playground or park.
Keep the playdate small and short – one or two children for one or two hours. Choose activities and games your child enjoys or is good at so that he/she feels good.
Don’t be afraid to join in. You can guide the activity or game and make positive comments to include all the children. Distract them if conflict emerges but don’t speak for your child. Let him/her express their feelings and have some control. If things are going well, step back.
Try to end the play time when things are going well. Let the children know when it’s time for things to wind down and perhaps involve the children in setting the date for the next get together.
Eventually you want to be able to leave your child at playdates elsewhere and know that he/she is confident about having a good time.
What if I don’t like my child’s friend?
Try not to choose your child’s friends for her/him. As preschoolers you can guide friendship choices through the contacts you choose to make with other children. But once your child is at school it’s wise to let your child explore friendships. Make your child’s friends welcome in your home and don’t be too concerned if you feel a friend your child has chosen is not a good match. Young children will often switch between groups of friends.
For older children at school, you have to trust your child. Peer groups often influence how a child appears outwardly (e.g. clothing or language) but their basic values are shaped by what goes on at home. Children tend to choose friends who share their values so get to know your child’s friends before you judge.
However, if you are really unhappy with a chosen friend you can set parameters for interaction with that child rather than trying to ban contact.
For example, if a friend is rough and aggressive, you can arrange outdoors, supervised play rather than allowing the children to play in your son’s room. If your daughter has chosen a friend who is interested in boys at an age you consider too young for your daughter, you can arrange a baking session or game of mini putt instead of allowing them to pore over teen magazines.
If your son or daughter forms a friendship that undermines their self esteem through persistent one-upmanship or put-downs, it may help to refresh your child’s assertiveness skills. Point out how you see the relationship affecting your child. This may be the seed of realisation for your child to help them regain control.
What if my child struggles to make friends?
If your child finds it hard to make friends, it’s likely they will be unhappy about it. They may put on a brave face or act like he/she doesn’t care but there will be pain underneath. Try not to find fault with your child’s behaviour in an attempt to make them more likeable. For example, telling your son not to cry “all the time” because it encourages the other boys to make fun of him, or telling your daughter to “smile more and join in”, may just reinforce their feelings of inadequacy.
Empathise with your child – it DOES matter if they’re feeling left out at school. Don’t minimise the situation to try and make them feel better, it won’t work. Discuss the situation with your child’s teacher and see if they can buddy your child for class projects with someone who has similar interests. Find out who are those children of similar interests and try to arrange contact outside of school time – maybe invite another child on your family outings. It may also help to encourage your child to take an interest in the latest craze (maybe a movie or toy) – there is usually little harm in it and it creates common ground for conversation and play at school.
Involve your child in groups or activities outside school so that he/she can mix with other children who share his/her interests. Encourage these friendships outside the group as well.
If your child is struggling to develop social skills, then a youth group or, for younger children, a group that encourages these skills (e.g. Brownies or Cubs), may be helpful.
Friendships for boys and girls during adolescence serve quite different purposes – features that often carry on into adulthood. Adolescent girls discuss fashion and talk about boys, but they also share secrets and their worries and anxieties with their friends. Adolescent boys are less intimate with their mates but they share activities – sport, joking around and hobbies.
One consequence of the greater intimacy girls share is that when things go wrong the pain is greater. Girls experience more jealousy and rivalry in their close friendships than boys, but their networks also tend to provide them with more emotional support.
How can I influence who my teen chooses as a friend?
Self-esteem is a pretty good barometer for whether your teen will make good choices for friends. If you treat your teenager with respect they are more likely to respect themselves enough to choose friends who will not drag them down.
Teenagers usually choose friends who are a lot like themselves. A child who feels good about himself will generally choose friends who also have self-respect. The teen who chooses someone very different from him/herself is probably saying they are not happy or confident about where they’re at. Focus on building their self esteem by concentrating on the positive in their lives and abilities. But look beyond the superficial in who they choose to socialise with … remember clothes and jewellery are not the sum of the teen within – just because they look different doesn’t mean they don’t share your core values.
Adolescence is a time when children develop their independence and make decisions for themselves. Let your son/daughter know that you are trusting him/her to make a wise choice in a given situation and it’s more likely that they will. A teenager who is not allowed to make decisions for him/herself may try to take control in dramatic fashion and make more serious mistakes.
Try not to interrogate your teenager about their friends … the best way to learn about their friends is to have an open door and get to know them yourself. This may mean stocking your fridge and pantry with snacks you know they like and giving them access to your stereo. You can set the rules – if they make a mess, they clean it up – but make your home a place they like to come to.
What if I don’t like my teenager’s friends?
Don’t expect to like all your teenager’s friends – do they like all of yours? Focus on their close friends rather than the larger circle they may socialise with. Try not to judge hastily and do look beyond the superficial. Be firm on courtesy and the way the teenagers treat others, but be relaxed about dyed hair, jewellery and clothing.
Avoid criticising your teen’s friends. He/she may feel this is as an attack on his own judgment and may resort to secrecy.
If you think there is cause for serious concern, then seek professional advice.
What if my teenager has no friends?
Open communication is very important if your teen is feeling socially isolated. Look for signals that he/she wants to talk about it. You may like to raise situations you faced at their age as a starting point for discussion but do not force the issue.
Try to put some perspective on the situation. Let your teen know that you understand they are hurting but reassure him/her that they are not alone and not abnormal – many teenagers go through the same thing.
Teens want support, but not interference. Share your experience and information and help your teen come up with ideas to improve the situation – maybe through exploring an interest in an extracurricular group or club.
Watch for depression: be observant of your teen’s mood and watch for signs of depression such as withdrawal, declining school performance, mood swings, sadness and sleep changes. If you notice a significant change of behaviour or attitude, then seek professional advice.