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 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 that they will be using—and refining—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 you think about how you might get her more involved in activities with other kids, first figure out what’s getting in her way when it comes to making friends. See what you can get by speaking directly to her. If that doesn’t work, try talking to her teacher or school counselor. In order to know how to help, you have to find out the reason she’s spending so much time alone.
- Is she shy or anxious around other kids?
- Is she being bullied at school?
- Is she showing any other signs of emotional upset?
- Is she having trouble “fitting in”?
- Does she just prefer spending time alone in her room reading and drawing?
Is this behavior a change?
If your child’s isolation represents a sudden change in behavior, chances are you’re not just dealing with a case of shyness. It’s important to find out what is going on in her life, including at school.
Many kids who are being bullied are too ashamed to report it to their parents or even to their teachers. Reassure your child that you love her and there is nothing to be ashamed of. Gently coaxing her to trust you is the best way to begin a conversation about a painful subject.
If your daughter’s avoidance is a change, it could also indicate depression, which often leads kids to withdraw from friends and social activities. Signs to look for include:
- A change in appetite
- A change in sleep patterns
- A change in academic performance
- Lack of interest in activities she used to enjoy
- Avoiding people she used to spend time with
If your daughter exhibits several of these symptoms, you should have 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. Signs that your daughter might have an anxiety disorder include:
- Worrying excessively over small things
- Worrying excessively about her performance in school or activities
- Constant worries about the health and safety of parents
- Difficulty separating from parents
- Refusing to go to school
- Frequent headaches and stomachaches
- Sleep problems
- Trouble concentrating
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. Signs of social anxiety include:
- Refusing to go to school
- Avoiding most activities with peers
- Being excessively self-critical
- Having extreme fear of situations involving new people
- Having anxiety attacks in social situations like parties or when speaking in front of classmates
If your daughter seems to be having problems with anxiety, an evaluation by a mental health professional is once again in order.
If there’s no evidence of bullying or an emotional disorder that could be an issue, here are things you can do to help.
How to Help Shy Children
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 children 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 make the mistake of keeping more 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, where your child will be most at ease.
- Do encourage your child to join clubs or other activities that interest her. They are a good way to make friends because they provide built-in structure that helps minimize anxiety.
- Do plan family activities that will bring your daughter in contact with other children her age.
- Do help her rehearse ahead of time for a situation that makes her nervous, like going to a birthday party or meeting a new group of people.
Helping Your Kid Fit In
Some kids have a harder time fitting in with their peers. The problem is complicated if your child has ADHD, which may cause her to act in impulsive or hyperactive ways that might be off-putting to other children. If she has “inattentive” type ADHD and is easily distracted and slow to pick up social cues, she might hover at the margins of playgroups, unsure of how to approach other kids.
How to Help 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 would 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.
- Talk with your child 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?
- Ask your child how she will know if her guests are having a good time. Are they smiling? Laughing?
Friendships do more for your teenager 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.
How to Help Your Teen
- Talk to your teenager to find out what she thinks the problem is.
- Encourage her to talk about what she might do to improve the situation.
- Ask questions to help her brainstorm her own ways to make friends that she will feel confident trying.
- Help your child 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.
- Enroll your daughter in new activities that allow her to meet teens other than the kids at school or in the neighborhood.
- Make friends with the parents of her classmates to help her build new friendships. 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. Offer to drive your daughter and her friends to social events and extracurricular activities or let your child invite a friend on family outings.
- Again, don’t force her to do something. Forcing isn’t a good way to get cooperation, particularly with teenagers 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.