When Your Son or Daughter Has No Friends
By Sonali Gupta
Making friends is one of the most important social development goals for children. And it’s something I hear parents worry about a lot; “My son has no friends,” they will say, or “My daughter has no friends.” When a child is having trouble making friends, it’s heartbreaking for parents – and it’s more common than ever.
We live in an age when virtual interactions and distractions are the norm, making real-world friendship all the harder to establish and flourish. Kids can enjoy individualized entertainment like never before, at the swipe of a finger. If they have trouble making friends, they may think – why bother?
But parents know the value of friendship. We’ve experienced its importance in the fluctuations of our confidence, insecurities, pain, and joy. And we set an extra value on friendships that date to our childhoods, if only because these relationships have been tried and tested by the fire of time. We want that kind of friendship for children.
So, we worry about helping children make friends. We worry about children making enough friends. Later, we worry whether they know how to make good friends.
But we view their friendships through our own lenses of personality and experience, which isn’t fair. If your child is having trouble making friends, or you’re worried whether she has enough friends, the first thing to do is consider, objectively, whether it’s your perception or reality.
Is your child really friend-less?
Sometimes, what a parent perceives as no or not enough friendships isn’t what the child is experiencing. Where parents may be extroverts and the child is an introvert (or vice versa) it can be difficult to understand the other’s social needs and satisfaction.
Ask yourself: Are your needs colouring what you expect for your child? A mother once wondered about her child’s introversion in conversation with me: “Doesn’t he get bored of meeting only one friend?” He may not, in fact, get bored, but may find more support and meaning in that one relationship than he would in 15 additional ones.
But, if it’s not your perception, and your child really is having trouble making friends, the next step is to consider why.
Why is your child having trouble making friends?
Your child might be having trouble making friends for two reasons: impaired opportunity and impaired social skills.
In my experience, this is a common reason a child has trouble making friends — but it’s not always the easiest to recognize, as it requires self-reflection from parents. Enmeshed parenting involves parents in children’s life to an unhealthy degree that could inhibit friendships.
If you consider yourself your child’s best friend or obsessively manage playdates, you may need to take a step back. A mother once told me, “My 8-year-old loves playing with me, since I let him win all the time.” It’s ideal for parents to play with their kids and be involved in their lives, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of interaction with peers who challenge them.
Closely related to this is the issue of overscheduling. I’ve met 5-year-olds whose parents tell me the children are only free on a Sunday for counselling; the rest of the week is taken up with school, tuitions and other structured activities. Most parents mean this kind of schedule for the best, but often it comes at the cost of mingling with peers.
Another common reason for few friendships is a digital addiction. An 8-year-old recently told me, “I only play Minecraft, and it consumes my day. I have friends at school, but I never go down to the building [lawn] to play.” When children spend all of their time online, whether to play games or use social media, they have fewer opportunities for real-world interactions that foster friendship.
Impaired social skills can be another reason a child is having trouble making friends. For some children, this is naturally part of their personality (for instance, some autistic children struggle to pick up on social cues). For others, it’s a missed part of development: A fast-growing mountain of research is proving that early and/or frequent use of digital devices inhibits the development of social skills like emotional regulation, attention control, and inhibition control – all key skills in navigating friendship.
For other children, inhibited social skills could be a learned trait. If you or another caregiver struggles with appropriate social skills, or doesn’t feel the need to seek friendships, your child may not have any template for relating to others socially.
Helping your child make friends
First, remember that, while helping your child make friends is a great goal, these are not your friendships to make; it’s up to your child. However, here are some tips to keep in mind, if you’re concerned that your child is having trouble making friends.
Become a role model.
Parenting holds up a mirror to every tiny thing we could do better and provides us countless opportunities to work on ourselves. It’s difficult to acknowledge, and difficult to do, but we could probably all be better at listening, building new relationships and supporting existing ties. Be the friend you want your child to be.
Teach your child to share and take turns.
This may seem obvious, but it’s worth saying: These two simple skills go a long way in helping children make friends, no matter what their age. I once worked with a 5-year-old who would not go to school because, he said, he had no friends. As we worked with him, it emerged that he refused to share and, hence, children started avoiding him.
If nothing else, teach children the Golden Rule, which is more or less the foundation of all social graces. For younger or very sensitive children, consider role playing to help them build emotional intelligence and practice social skills.
Set up a buddy system.
In some schools, teachers pair a very quiet child with another, talkative child to help the shy child become comfortable initiating conversations. This can be done informally by asking a more outgoing acquaintance, friend, sibling or cousin to stick by your child.
Get your child up and moving.
If you find your child just too buried in books, she may need an organized opportunity to meet other children. Sports or other group activities that encourage physical activity or the Arts are particularly conducive to social interaction.
It is completely normal for children to have just one or two friends who they consider close. Respect your child’s temperament; as long as he seems happy, let him navigate his own social needs.