Credit: Pexels
Credit: Pexels

12 Ways to Help When Your Child Struggles to Make Friends

Parents often feel very helpless when their kids come home and say things like “Nobody likes me!” or “They’re all getting together without me!” or “Everyone has a best friend except me!” While we can’t make friends for our kids, there’s a lot we can do to ease the way socially for them.

1) Reach First for Empathy
We adults tend to leap to trying to fix problems, but sometimes just listening to our kids and acknowledging their feelings is enough. You could say, “It sounds like you had a rough day” or “It hurt your feelings when she said that.” Echoing your child’s thoughts and feelings allows your child to feel heard and understood.

When a child is feeling rejected by classmates, some extra loving from mom or dad can be comforting. You may want to ask, “Do you need a hug?” or suggest an outing with just the two of you.

2) Try Not to Overreact
It’s hard to see our kids hurting, but keep in mind that children’s feelings can change rapidly. The kid your child claims to hate today could be a favorite friend next week. The disagreement that had your child in tears at bedtime tonight could vanish tomorrow.

Kids, by definition, lack perspective. They just haven’t lived long enough to be able to understand events in a broader context. You certainly don’t want to dismiss your child’s genuine distress, but an incident that feels like the end of the world to your child…most likely isn’t.

If a classmate was mean to your child, you may be tempted to step in like an avenging angel by contacting the other parent or speaking directly to that child. Don’t. It’s understandable that you’d feel protective of your child, but you don’t want the conflict to expand to the parents. Unless your child is in danger, or it’s a case of very serious bullying, it’s usually best to give kids a chance to work out disagreements on their own.

Also, if you become visibly upset about your child’s friendship problems, it makes those problems bigger. If you’re upset, too, the problem must be even more dire than your child thought. Strong emotional reactions from you could make your child reluctant to tell you about future problems. Or, conversely, a big response from you might make your child focus on and report every tiny little slight.

Focus on offering support and guidance rather than solving the friendship problem for your child. It’s more empowering for your child to come away thinking, “I did it! I figured out how to solve this!” or at least, “I got through it!” rather than “I needed my parents to fix it.”

3) Support Emotional Awareness

What fuels the development of children’s friendships is a growing ability to understand someone else’s perspective. It’s hard to imagine someone else’s point of view, especially when we’re upset!

After validating your child’s feelings, you may be able to help your child imagine the other kid’s perspective by asking questions. You could say, “Why do you think he did that?”, “How do you think she was feeling?”, or “Why do you think that bothered them?” Imagining another child’s feelings could soften your child’s anger and encourage more caring responses.

You can also work on emotional awareness more generally by talking about feelings as they come up in books of movies.  Don’t ask so many questions that it ruins the story, but wondering aloud about the characters’ thoughts, feelings, wishes, and worries helps give your child practice in understanding someone else’s inner life.

4) Get More Information

If the friendship problem occurs repeatedly or is ongoing, you might need to get more information about what’s happening. Your child’s account may not be complete; it’s hard for kids to see their own role in social difficulties. For instance, your child might say that a classmate kicked his chair and forget to mention that that classmate had first politely asked him several times to move over.

Talking to your child’s teacher is often helpful. The teacher sees your child in action with peers every day and could offer important insight about how your child acts around others, how classmates respond to your child, and what’s typical behavior for your child’s age.

You can also learn more by observing your child interacting with peers. Keep an eye out on the playground, arrange a playdate, or volunteer in your child’s classroom so you can see firsthand how your child gets along with other kids.

5) Coach Your Child
Once you understand what’s happening, you may be able to guide your child toward getting along better with peers. This guidance works best before your child enters a social situation rather than after your child has behaved in unfriendly ways.

For example, during a calm, neutral moment, you may be able to help your child role-play friendly greetings or calm responses to teasing. You could also help your child figure out and practice better ways to handle a frustrating situation, such as losing a game.

Many kids struggle with being a good sport. Emphasize that winning and losing only lasts two seconds, so it’s only a brief time that they have to be brave, tolerate that pinch of disappointment, and say, “Good Game!” Practicing playing with games with you might build your child’s tolerance. Remind your child that good sports don’t change the rules, quit in the middle, or accuse others of cheating.

6) Be Alert to Stop Signals
If your child tends to annoy others, you may to make a list together of signs that others are getting annoyed so your child be alert to stop signals. If other kids are saying things like, “Quit it! You’re being annoying!”, it’s important to stop as quickly as possible. Otherwise, your child is signaling, “I don’t care about your feelings!”

Stopping is difficult for some kids. Having a plan to sit on their hands or cross their arms and take a step back, or even to say, “I’m going to stop now” can make it easier for kids to transition out of an annoying behavior.

Be careful not to correct your child in front of other children. If you need to say something, ask your child to come to you and privately discuss what’s happening. Asking works better than telling because we want kids to learn to think things through
instead of just giving them the answer for one particular situation. So, you might ask, “How is your friend feeling right now?”, “What could you do to make sure your friend is having a good time?”, “What could you do instead of arguing?”, or “What is the kind thing to do right now?”

7) Find Your Child’s People
Kids make friends by doing fun things together. What does your child enjoy doing that they could do with other kids? That may be an opening to friendships with kids who have similar interests. Joining a new club or after-school activity could be a good way to make friends.

You may also need to help your child figure out which kids seem open to friendship. Not everyone is going to like your child; that’s human nature. Trying to pursue a friendship with someone who isn’t interested is a recipe for misery.

Help your child think about which peers seem friendly and have similar interests. Sometimes, kids fixate on wanting to be friends with the most popular kid in the class and overlook peers who have more in common with them.

8) Practice Showing Openness to Friendship
Ask your child, “How could you show someone that you’re interested in being friends with them?” A sincere compliment or a small act of kindness such as sharing or helping are easy ways your child could signal liking.

Sometimes kids hold back because they feel self-conscious and don’t want to be “weird.” If that sounds like your child, it may help to start small with just a friendly greeting: Look the other kid in the eye (or between the eyebrows if that’s difficult for your child), smile to show they’re happy so see the other kid, say hi, and say the person’s name to make the greeting personal. Encourage your child to observe others greeting each other, practice the greetings at home, then set a daily goal for greeting people.

9) Create Opportunities for Friendships to Grow
One-on-one playdates or get-togethers can be a great way to deepen casual

Often kids are reluctant to invite someone over, insisting, “I don’t know them that well!” But inviting someone over helps kids get to know each other better. If your child and the other child have had fun together once, that’s a good enough basis to get together. Even if the other child is busy and says no, the invitation is still helpful because it communicates to the other child, “I like you enough to want to spend extra time with you, outside of where we normally see each other!”

When the other child arrives for the get-together, have your child offer a choice of two activities. This avoids initial awkwardness about deciding what to do and allows the children to have fun together as quickly as possible. Remind your child that it’s the host’s responsibility to make sure the guest has a good time.

You may also want to try inviting another family over for a family game night. Make it easy on yourself: invite the family to come over after dinner, so there’s no complicated meal preparation, play a game together, offer fruit and dessert, then let the kids play while the adults chat. This could open the door to friendship for your child.

10) Focus on Being Kind Rather than Impressive
Sometimes kids think they need to impress others to make friends. They may brag or try to be funny. We all like being around people who make us laugh, but humor is a risky social strategy because if it’s just a bit off, it’s not funny; it’s annoying. Also, sometimes humor can come across as a put-down, saying or implying, “I’m better than you!” This is
off-putting, especially if the other kids don’t know your child well.

Instead, your child could focus on being interested in others, asking questions that begin with What or How to get to know them, remembering what they say, and generally being helpful and kind. Kindness is the key to friendships, and it’s something that every child can do.

11) Model the Importance of Friendship
We’re all busy, but let your child see you making time for friendship. When you do something kind for a friend, tell your child what you’re doing and why. When you make plans with friends, share your happy anticipation and your enjoyment afterwards. If you’re nervous about reaching out to people, talk with your child about how that’s scary for you but you’re doing it anyway.

12) Get Professional Help, If Needed
Sometimes, friendship problems require professional help. If your child is being harassed or threatened at school, you must enlist the help of the teacher and principal in keeping your child safe. If your child’s social difficulties continue for weeks or months, you may want to consult a mental health professional or try a social skills group, where your child can practice getting along with others in a safe, constructive environment.

Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, is the host of the Kids Ask Dr. Friendtastic podcast and the author of many books, including Moody Moody Cars (for ages 4-8), Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends (for ages 6-12), and Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem (for parents).