Making friends in middle school can be stressful and tricky. If your child struggles with social skills, it may be even more challenging. Here are some ways to help your child connect with other kids.
1. Go over social rules and cues.
Some middle-schoolers with learning and thinking differences have more trouble with social skills than other tweens. Talk with your child about social cues and social rules—but don’t just do it in the aftermath of a social blunder. Discuss basic social skills when things are calm and going well, too.
It can also be effective to discretely point out social cues when you see others using (or missing) them. For example: “Do you see how Mr. Jones backed away when Zach talked to him? That’s because Zach was standing too close.”
2. Remind her there are different types of friends.
Not everybody can be a friend for all situations—and that’s OK. Talk that through with your tween. For instance, some kids aren’t good at keeping secrets, but they’re lots of fun. Some are easy to talk to about feelings, but don’t share the same interests. Some are great to work with on projects with but not so great to hang out with.
Let your child know just because someone isn’t “best friend” material, that doesn’t mean she can’t be a friend. It just means there are limitations to that particular friendship.
3. Understand what your child wants and needs.
Some kids don’t need a bunch of friends. Managing the drama of multiple friends is sometimes too much. Check in with your child. Ask, “What are you looking to get out of a new friendship? What kinds of things do you picture doing with a friend?”
Keep in mind that your child’s friendship needs might not match yours. And they may change over time, too. So keep checking in.
4. Keep talking about what’s important in a friend.
Explore what your tween thinks makes a good friend. It may actually help her understand how she views friendship. Try to listen and not project your own ideas. Ask open-ended questions like, “What do you think makes someone a good friend? Why?”
Exploring what your child has to offer as a friend can also help. Ask her to consider what qualities or things make her a good friend to have.
5. Help her recognize possible friends.
Your child may not recognize the kid who could be a friend. Talk about who she likes to spend time with, either at school or outside of it. Point out who she talks about in positive ways.
Sometimes kids aim to be friends with kids who have very different values. Guide your child by helping her voice values that are not negotiable to her. Ask things like: Do you want a dependable friend who shows up on time? Is honesty very important to you, or having a friend you can confide in?
6. Explore new ways she can start friendships.
Joining afterschool activities is a good way for tweens to meet kids with common interests. Once your child feels confident with kids in that group, she may want to hang out one-on-one.
Help her come up with things to say like, “You do great accents in drama club. Let’s hang out sometime and maybe you can teach me.” She could also invite a friend to come with her to an activity. “Are you going to the food drive on Saturday? Want us to pick you up on the way?”
7. Talk about behaviors that can damage a friendship.
Be frank with your child about what she needs to know to avoid hurting a friendship. For instance: Friends need space and can’t always be together. They may each have other friends they want to see sometimes. You and your friend both need a chance to talk about your feelings and what’s important to you. And friends can disagree without hurting each other.
8. Keep your eyes and ears open.
When kids are this age, keeping on top of the help they need in making friends can be tough. Volunteer to drive carpools or host a small group of kids for a movie marathon. Or volunteer at school to see what’s happening in that environment. You’ll get a chance to observe and listen to not only their words, but to their emotions as well.
Let your child know she can talk to you—and you will listen without being judgmental. That indirect route of being a sounding board helps keep the lines of communication open.
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Mark J. Griffin, PhD was the founding headmaster of Eagle Hill School, a school for children with specific learning disabilities.