Making friends doesn’t come naturally to all of us—or to our kids. Or sometimes, the making part isn’t as challenging as the keeping part. But it’s heartbreaking to think our kids might be lonely or excluded from their peers, particularly at school. But how much—if anything—can parents do to help without being overbearing or intrusive?
Get to the root of the problem
First, it’s important to note that just because your tween or teen spends a lot of time at home or in their bedroom on the weekends, it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have any friends or are unhappy. Some kids are just naturally introverted or savour their alone time. Michael Ungar writes for Psychology Today:
In my career as a family therapist I’ve had more than a few conversations with extremely affable parents who wanted to pathologize their child’s lack of peer relationships when the child was in fact quite happy with one or two close friends and lots of time to read and daydream.
But for those who do wish to have more friends, the reason for their struggle typically falls into two categories. Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist who specialises in the treatment of adolescents, breaks these reasons down in U.S. News & World Report:
Some kids are simply shy and anxious. This can lead to difficulty engaging comfortably with peers. Because of their temperament and lack of comfort, they may choose to hang back and be avoidant.
Some kids have social difficulties. Their interpersonal skills are lacking, which puts off peers and makes it tough to develop friendships. They may not read social cues properly. They may be controlling or aggressive or talk only about themselves and show little interest in others. Or, they may be too clingy and possessive, needy or even a bit mean or sarcastic.
Knowing why they are having trouble making friends is the first step in helping them through it. For shy kids, you can help facilitate opportunities for friendships to develop over time, especially when they’re younger. That might mean setting up playdates, offering to drive them and a friend or two out for ice cream after their baseball game or hosting the neighbourhood barbecue to get the kids interacting more.
For tweens who need to build social skills, Ungar suggests getting a copy of the book Growing Friendships: A Kid’s Guide to Making and Keeping Friends, which depicts common friendship challenges, teaches kids how to be open to friendships and how to be a good friend. You might also try to do a little role-playing or coaching at home. Greenberg says:
Observe them in interactions to see how they may be putting off their peers. Do you find your kids difficult to interact with? If so, consider that they may be interacting similarly with peers. Discuss these issues with your children, but do so gently and gingerly so that your kids don’t become ashamed and angry. Provide them with opportunities to practice and hone their social skills. Sign them up for activities they’re interested in. This is a chance to both practice social skills and engage in an activity that the child enjoys.
Emphasise quality over quantity
So they’ve got one friend at Girl Scouts and … that’s it. That’s ok! In fact, that’s good! It shows they can make a friend. That’s the message certified parent coach Meghan Leahy wrote in the Washington Post to a parent whose 15-year-old daughter has friends at church but not at school:
Your daughter also needs to understand that, while friendships are important, the right friendships are more important. Help your daughter to see the traits and characteristics she values in her church friends, and then see if there is anyone who is like that in school. Because teens can become global in their assumptions (everyone is mean), it is a useful exercise to ask your daughter thoughtful questions. Remember that she may not have quick answers, but helping her slow down and reflect is good for both her and the people she knows.
Don’t push it
Chances are, they are already feeling down about not having friends; the last think you want to do is push it and make them feel even worse. And it won’t work anyway. Especially as tweens turn into teens, you are simply not going to be able to fix this problem on your own. Leahy writes:
Parents can’t force a teen to do much of anything, least of all create friendships. At best, your daughter will resent you. At worst, she’ll still struggle with making friends, but now she won’t want to turn to her parents because they seem to want to “fix” her.
What’s more important than urging them to keep trying to make friends is to be their support system, so Leahy says to “listen, empathise and hug her though this.”
Remember, too, that much of your influence resides in your own behaviour. Focus on modelling what good, healthy friendships look like by consistently maintaining yours.
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