My kid is having a hard time making friends. Ideas? — Concerned, New Hope
“Hi! I’m Heather and I’m Lucy!” I met two of my best-friends-forever in the first hour of that first day of the first year at university. It was instant compatibility — the Universal Law of Attraction — that brought three kindred spirits together. Heather was a math-majoring, feline-friendly, fiery Leo who loved nothing more than sailing on the open seas. Lucy was a soft-spoken Arien, who studied geography and enjoyed rugby and riding. And I was an English-reading, dog-devoted, watery Piscean who preferred basketball and had refused to climb aboard any sailing vessel, after I was left flailing in freezing water for45 minutes when my catamaran sank when I was 16. They say opposites attract!
From the beginning, Heather and I ditched the bus and biked to class, laughing all the way. Lucy joined our parade in the second year and we’d race to “uni,” our hair mussed and our cheeks licked red by the wind. Heather and I joined the basketball team as a duo, bought the shoes, learned to layup, broke a collar bone, tore an ankle and sprained several fingers between us. Lucy commiserated. We cooked together and discovered that all three of us lacked talent. We went to parties and nightclubs and dance halls together. I did their hair and make-up and encouraged them to go glam. In our final university year, I convinced Heather to cut her hair pixie short and later still to color it, a soul-sizzling red. Lucy approved.
After we graduated, providence intervened and I found myself at grad school in Heather’s home town. So we met up for meals and movies, and we visited Lucy (now in a smart home and smarter job) and made more magical memories. Later, when I met my husband on the night of Heather’s birthday, I knew it was a sign sent from heaven.
When my husband and I moved to Colorado, my two friends both came over from England and visited us. I showed them the sites. And later still, when I finally met Lucy’s significant other in my new home in Minnesota, and they looked around at my little family and told me I should be proud. I knew then (heart, mind and soul) that I’d done okay.
Making friends — particularly those forever friends — is one of the blessings of childhood. And whether we meet them at 8 or 18, they’re worth the wait. Close friends brighten days, share secrets, offer comfort and teach one another about relationships — what works and what doesn’t. And sometimes those super friends (especially during the teen years) offer a sanctuary of understanding that family members can’t!
Of course without fail, every kid will experience some year (or more) when they hang in friendship limbo, when the search for that bosom buddy becomes something of a quest — one filled with hookups and let downs and learning and occasional frustrated tears.
During those fallow years, it’s important to support kids emotionally and remind them that the lack of a close friend does not determine self-worth, but instead it offers an opportunity to improve their buddy building skills, so that they are able to make friends not just for a grade level, but for life!
So, where to begin?
First, help expand your child’s view of friendship. Find out what your child thinks makes a genuine friend and talk to your child about the kind of friend they are. Encouraging your child to self-reflect can offer insight about themselves, their friendships and their friendship expectations. Perhaps your teen will realize she tries too hard, perhaps your tween will realize she’s too gossipy, perhaps your youngest kid will recognize that the guys he’s hung out with aren’t right for him. Help your kid to use that knowledge to find good friends and be a great friend, too.
Next, teach your kid to be friendly — heart, mind and soul! Research shows that popular kids have great interpersonal skills: they are empathic, can see more than one point of view and know right from wrong (Slaughter, et al 2002; Dekovic and Gerris 1994) Teach these skills by role-modeling them to your younger kids and by explaining how to actively listen, smile and engage friends with your older child.
Susan says, “I noticed that my son rarely said hi or even raised a smile when he saw other kids out and about. I began to encourage him by stopping and chatting to them myself until he felt confident enough to speak up. When he finally made an effort to smile and chat, the other kids responded. I don’t think my son realized that friendships, like plants, need to be nurtured, and how much of a difference it makes.”
Third, help your kid make friends at school with a playdate at home! For some sensitive kids, the busy (often frenetic) nature of school is not conducive to friendship building. Too much stimulation can cause some kids to shut down, rather than open up heart and soul to another person.
Professor Frederik Frankel, creator of the Friendship Program, sees the playdate as the “building block of children’s friendships,” as it provides a safe and intimate opportunity for those teens, tweens or younger kids to bond with a new buddy.
How do you make playdates work? Invite one potential friend over at a time. Make the visits short (less is always more) and fun (take older kids swimming or to the movies, or take younger kids to a park.) This allows kids to ease into the friendship by focusing on the activity more than one another.
Creative projects (like Lego, crafts and playing music together) also are excellent ice-breakers and allow for collaboration and helping (which raises spirits), positive communication (which builds bonds and generates giggles!) and a joint sense of accomplishment (which is good for the soul!)
Todd agrees, “My tween was feeling friendless, so we invited different kids over for a couple of hours each. The girls rode rib sticks, made crafts and watched humorous YouTube videos together. Almost overnight, my daughter had peers to text with and the friendships developed from there.”
For some kids, friendship blues last longer than expected. At that point, kids can feel self-conscious and socially awkward. For kids who have been long-term friendless, speak to a trusted teacher or school counselor who might have better understanding of what’s going on socially at school and who may be able to reach out and speak to the right person or group and help your child bridge those friendship gaps.
Finally, remind your child to embrace a positive attitude and speak up for herself and ask to join in with a group and their activities.
Terry agrees, “Sometimes kids don’t exclude another person, purposefully. They’re just not good at reading signals. That was my experience in school with Monika. Many times she’d asked to work with me and my friend on a project in class and we did, but it was only when she said that she’d really love to be friends with me did the penny drop that it wasn’t the projects she liked, but me! After that, we became close and I really enjoyed her company.”
Some spirited kids are social butterflies — others not — but as long as your child has at least one good friend in her life, or even a couple of friendly acquaintances, it’s enough to put the laughter on her lips and the sparkle in her spirit. So support your child’s friendship quest, encourage your kid to be a good friend and when a new friend does appear, remind your child to treasure the gift today and tomorrow for a best friend for life!
The Importance of Friendship
Do Kids Need Friends?
What Parents Can Do to Support Friendship
Making and Keeping Friends
Friendless Kids Master the Art of Friend-Making
How to Help Your Child Make and Keep Friends