“I wasn’t prepared for how helpless I’d feel as a parent sometimes. My son is struggling to make friends, and I don’t know what to do. I can see that he’s lonely, but it’s hard for him to connect with other kids. How can I help?”
There’s a learning curve when it comes to making friends. Children need various social skills to successfully connect with other kids (e.g. conflict resolution, turn-taking, accountability, good hygiene, and emotional regulation).
Like academic and athletic skills, honing social skills requires coaching, time, and practice.
You may feel worried or discouraged when your child struggles to make friends. You aren’t the only parent feeling this way. Parents want their children to lead happy and healthy lives, and the ability to form close friendships is a major part of that. It hurts to see your child lonely and feel helpless as their parent, so let's look at what you can do to help.
10 Ways to Help Your Child Make Friends
1. Build emotional intelligence (EI)
The ability to identify, express, and understand feelings plays a crucial role in friendships. You can foster your child's EI by:
- Labeling - Help your child name and describe emotions.
- Validating - Normalize your child's feelings instead of minimizing their experiences.
- Discussing - Make your home a safe place to talk about feelings. Model healthy emotional expression and coping skills.
2. Be a boundaries coach
Healthy boundaries are an important part of all relationships including friendships. Talk to your child about how to set personal boundaries while also respecting other people’s limits. You can help them identify the ones they want to set for themselves as well as learn what it means to cross someone’s boundaries (e.g. violating personal space or gossiping).
3. Cultivate self-confidence
Identify your child's strengths and interests, then get them involved in a group form of that activity. This might be an art, dance, or cooking class, choir, band, sports team, or volunteer group. Public libraries often have teen events for specific interests, such as robotics or gaming.
4. Reinforce positive behaviors
Encourage and praise your child for prosocial behaviors. Draw attention to their actions that will help them make friends, such as turn-taking, friendliness, active listening, and helping others. Some children may not realize that specific behaviors will connect them to others.
5. Address problematic behaviors
Help your child identify off-putting actions. They might not understand that they're pushing other children away. It’s important to do this without shaming your child. For example, “no wonder no one wants to be your friend!” will worsen the situation.
Instead, try something like, “I notice you really want to play with Zach. I don’t think he likes it when you take the ball from him. Try asking him if you could play with him.”
6. Teach conversation skills
It takes work to learn how to hold a conversation, even for adults! Spend time talking to your child about how to:
- be friendly
- introduce themselves
- start and carry-on conversations
- respond to what another person is saying
7. Help them join other kids
The ability to join activities with other children is key! Teach your child to pay attention to what other kids are doing, so they can determine how best to participate. That might look like your child asking the children if they can play/join or offering to contribute to the activity (e.g., bring a toy or videogame). For teens, it may help their confidence to learn more about the specific activity or interest beforehand.
8. Practice, practice, practice
Provide opportunities to practice social skills at home and in low-pressure environments (e.g., play-dates or carpooling). You can role-play with your child or outline how a conversation might go. Cooperative board games are also a great way to build various skills. For teens, you can offer to host a hangout with one friend at your home. Brainstorm entertainment ideas with your teen, so they feel more prepared for their friend to come over. These ideas might include movies, video games, music, basketball, or eating a meal with the rest of your family.
9. Ask for help
Your child’s school can be a great resource for your family. Many schools have systems in place to help students get connected, such as lunch bunch or social skills groups. Elementary schools often have a “lunch bunch” group that provides kids with the opportunity to make friends and work on social skills. Many secondary schools also offer groups, and social skills classes may be available through the school's special education program.
10. Lead by example
As a parent, you know kids pay attention to everything you do, even when you wish they wouldn’t. Use this to your advantage! Children learn by seeing others model behaviors. You can show your child what prosocial behaviors look like at home. Household members can be intentional about:
- saying please and thank you
- taking turns in conversations
- inquiring about someone's well-being
- encouraging instead of being dismissive or sarcastic
Common Challenges to Making Friends
Spend time watching your child interact with other children. Identify barriers they may face when it comes to making friends. You know your child the best and will notice if there are any issues to address with your pediatrician. Common barriers children face include:
- Low self-esteem/low self-confidence - These can prevent children from participating in activities with other kids.
- Speech delays - It's difficult for a child to make friends when they have a hard time communicating with others.
- Hyperactivity/impulsivity - Many children with ADHD have difficulty building and maintaining friendships. They may not realize how they come across, act without thinking, cross boundaries, or miss social cues.
- Shyness - It’s not uncommon for a child to be shy. Some children simply take more time to warm up to others or social situations. They may feel uncomfortable with unfamiliar children or environments.
Shyness vs Social Anxiety
Social anxiety is often mislabeled as shyness, but the two are very different. Shyness is a natural personality trait. Social anxiety disorder is a diagnosable mental health condition. A child with social anxiety has extreme fear and avoidance of social situations, impacting their daily life for at least six months. They’re irrationally afraid of embarrassing themselves and they often come across as awkward to other children. You may also notice the child’s physical symptoms of anxiety, such as sweating, flushed cheeks, rapid breathing, or stomach aches.
Support for Social Anxiety
If you're concerned that your child might be struggling to make friends due to social anxiety, therapy can be an excellent resource for your child and family. Evidence-based therapy will provide intervention, support, and coping skills to address social anxiety.
Need Support for Your Child?
Soucisse, M.M., Marie-France Maisonneuve, M., and Normand, S. “Friendship Problems in Children with ADHD What Do We Know and What Can We Do?” 2015, Perspectives on Language and Literacy. Accessed September 5, 2022.