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 she has 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 her more involved in activities with other kids, it’s important to figure out what’s getting in her 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. (Read about ways to talk through social and emotional concerns with your child.)
If that doesn’t work, try talking to her teacher or school counselor. To know how to help, you’ll need to know why she’s spending so much time alone. Here are some questions you can ask:
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 her 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 her 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. Review a list of behavior changes that could be signs of depression.
If your daughter exhibits several of these symptoms, reach out to her doctor and ask about having her evaluated by a mental health professional. Treating the depression would be key to jump-starting a more active social life.
Is she unusually anxious around other kids her age? Severe anxiety is also something that can cause even young kids to withdraw or avoid other children. Explore signs of anxiety in young children.
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 daughter seems to be having problems with anxiety, this is another time to reach out to your child’s doctor 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 different activities your daughter could do and tell her to choose the one she likes most.
- Don’t feel like you have to keep tentative kids 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 in her own home.
- Do encourage your child to join clubs or other activities that interest her. They’re a good way to make friends because they provide built-in structure that helps minimize anxiety.
- Do plan family activities. This can bring your daughter in contact with other children her age.
- Do help her rehearse ahead of time for situations that make her 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 attention issues can make this even harder. For example, kids with attention issues may be easily distracted and slow to pick up on social cues.
See what trouble picking up on social cues can look like in different grades. And here are more ideas to help your child build social skills.
- Try some coaching at home. Emphasize taking turns and sharing during family playtime and explain that friends expect the same good behavior.
- Practice different 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. Demonstrate how you’d like to see her 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 your child how she will know if her guests are having a good time. Are they smiling? Laughing?
- Talk about what it means to be a good host. What will she do to make her 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?
Get more ideas to help preschoolers and grade-schoolers have successful playdates.
How to Help Teens With Socializing
Friendships do more for your teen than provide companionship and entertainment. Having healthy friendships enables her to begin to be more independent by building supportive and trusting relationships outside of the family.
- Talk it out. Try to find out what she thinks the problem is. Encourage her to talk about what she might do to improve the situation.
- Ask questions. Help her brainstorm her own ways to make friends that she’ll feel confident trying.
- Help her practice the skills necessary to meet people and build friendships. Role-play until she feels comfortable approaching other teens, introducing herself and keeping a conversation going.
- Consider enrolling her in new activities. This can help her meet teens other than the kids at school or in the neighborhood. (If you’re unsure what she’d like, try these ideas.)
- Try to make friends with the parents of her classmates. 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 daughter and her friends to social events and extracurricular activities. Or let your child invite a friend on family outings.
- Don’t force her 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 her find that one thing.
No matter what age she is, you can’t make friends for your child. Ultimately, she 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 her build and practice the key social skills she needs to make one or two really close friends. And that’s all anybody really needs.
Looking for more ideas? Explore ways to help preschoolers, grade-schoolers and middle-schoolers connect with other kids.