Few things pull the heartstrings more than seeing your child standing alone after all the other kids have gone off for afterschool playdates. Or finding out that at school your child is eating lunch alone. Or watching your teen sulk around the house on weekends because there’s no one to hang out with.
Most kids don’t need a lot of friends. But friendships, both in the early grade school years, and later, when they’re teenagers, are crucial to a child’s social and emotional growth.
Learning how to form successful peer relationships is a critical skill for kids, and one they’ll use—and refine—all their lives. That’s why forcing them into social situations won’t help. Instead, you need to help them build skills and develop the confidence they need to enjoy them.
So what can you do to help a child who’s not making friends?
Find out what’s going on. Before getting your child more involved in activities with other kids, try to figure out what’s getting in the way when it comes to making friends. See what you can learn by speaking directly to her. For instance, you might ask if she just prefers spending time alone in her room reading and drawing.
If that doesn’t work, try talking to the teacher or school counselor. To know how to help, you’ll need to know why your child is spending so much time alone. Here are some questions to ask:
Is my child shy or anxious around other kids?
Is my child being bullied at school?
Is my child showing any other signs of emotional upset?
Is my child having trouble “fitting in”?
Is this behavior a change? If your child’s isolation is a sudden change in behavior, you may be dealing with something more than a case of shyness.
Try to find out what’s going on in your child’s life, including at school. Many kids who are being bullied are too ashamed to report it to their parents or to their teachers. Reassure your child that you love her and there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Gently gaining your child’s trust is the best way to begin a conversation about a painful subject. If your daughter’s avoidance is a change, it could be a sign of depression, which often leads kids to withdraw from friends and social activities.
If your child shows several of these signs, reach out to your child’s health care provider and ask about an evaluation by a mental health professional. Treating the depression would be key to jump-starting a more active social life.
Is your child unusually anxious around other kids the same age? Severe anxiety is also something that can cause even young kids to withdraw or avoid other children. Explore signs of anxiety in young kids.
Around puberty, some kids develop social anxiety disorder, which means they are excessively worried about what other people think of them. They often avoid social situations in which they fear they might embarrass themselves. Take a look at signs of anxiety in teens and tweens.
If your child seems to be having problems with anxiety, this is another time to reach out to the health care provider and ask about a mental health evaluation.
If there’s no evidence of bullying or an emotional disorder that could be an issue, here are other things you can do to help.
How to Help Younger Kids With Socializing
First of all, don’t worry if your child is a little more hesitant in social situations. Expecting every child to jump in and be the leader of the group isn’t realistic. But there are dos and don’ts that will help your kid ease into the social scene.
Don’t push too hard. When kids are already struggling, forcing them to do something against their will rarely improves the situation. Instead, try picking three potential activities and have your child choose one.
Don’t feel like you have to keep your child at home. You want to give shy kids opportunities to meet potential friends. But you want to help them so they aren’t too uncomfortable.
Do plan playdates at your house first. If you’re in a position to host a playdate, this can help. Your child will likely be most at ease at home.
Do encourage your child to join clubs or other activities. They’re a good way to make friends because they offer built-in structure that can reduce anxiety.
Do plan family activities. This can bring your child in contact with other kids the same age.
Do rehearse ahead of time for situations that make your child nervous. This might be going to a birthday party or meeting a new group of people.
Some kids have a harder time fitting in with their peers. Certain learning and thinking differences can make this even harder. For example, kids who struggle with focus may be easily distracted and slow to pick up on social cues.
Here are more ideas to help your child build social skills.
Try some coaching at home. Focus on taking turns and sharing during family playtime and explain that friends expect the same behavior.
Practice strategies for keeping the peace. Role-playing can be very helpful here. Take turns with your child playing host and guest. Try to anticipate what kinds of arguments might come up and play them out with your child.
Model good behavior. Show how you’d like to see your child act when talking to family members and your own friends. Pay attention to others, be generous, and try to solve conflicts calmly.
Spend time before playdates reviewing social cues with your child. Ask kids how they’ll know if guests are having a good time. Are they smiling? Laughing?
Talk about what it means to be a good host. What will your child do to make guests feel comfortable?
Have your child pick out a few games in advance. How will your child know when it’s time to move on to the next game?
How to Help Teens With Socializing
Friendships do more for teens than provide companionship and entertainment. Having healthy friendships enables them to start to be more independent by building supportive relationships outside of the family.
Talk it out. Try to find out what your child thinks the problem is. Talk together about how to improve the situation.
Ask questions. Help your child brainstorm comfortable ways to make friends.
Practice the skills to meet people and build friendships. Role-play until your child feels comfortable approaching other teens and keeping a conversation going.
Sign up for new activities. This can help your child meet teens other than the kids at school or in the neighborhood.
Try to make friends with classmates’ parents. Inviting parents and teens on social outings can help shy teens interact with different kids—even those your teen thinks she won’t like.
Help keep things going. If you have a car, offer to drive your child to social events and activities. Or let your child invite a friend on family outings.
Don’t force your child to do something. Forcing isn’t a good way to get cooperation, particularly with teens who are trying to become more independent. It’s enough for many kids to find just one thing they like to do once a week. Try to help your child find that one thing.
You can’t make friends for your child at any age. Ultimately, your child has to do the (sometimes hard) work of building social bonds.
But if you see your child struggling to make friends or getting rejected by other kids, don’t hang back and just feel miserable. There’s a lot you can do to help your child build and practice the skills to make one or two really close friends. And that’s all anybody really needs.