Q: My daughter is on the shy side and struggles to make friends. The problem is, so do I. Just like my daughter, I’m fine with people I know well, but I feel uncomfortable in social situations around unfamiliar people. I don’t want her to experience the loneliness that I felt growing up. How can I help her have better social skills and become more socially confident when I also have trouble making new friends?
A: Maybe it would be easier to help your child make friends if you were more socially out-going. On the other hand, the fact that you also struggle with reaching out to make friends can give you a special compassion for her. You know what it’s like to feel shy and lonely. You’re not going to dismiss her fears or tell her to “just get over it.”
Be careful, though, that your special compassion doesn’t make it too easy for your child to stay stuck. When she says, “I don’t want to. It’s too hard,” she needs both your empathy and your confidence that she is strong enough to handle uncomfortable situations and make progress toward her goals.
Parents who share their kids’ social challenges also have another advantage: they can be excellent models. Classic research on modeling also shows that kids learn best from models who struggle at first then succeed. Talking with your daughter about how you’re going to reach out to an old friend, or meet someone for coffee, or attend a social event even though it’s uncomfortable for you could be inspiring. You can show her that you value friendships and let her see that building friendships takes time and effort.
You can also model your interest in learning about friendship skills. Reading together books like Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends could be fun and lead to interesting conversations about what you can relate to and what you’d like to try.
But there’s another issue underlying your question: What does it mean to have good social skills?
Here’s something I believe very deeply: There are many ways to be social. Not everyone has to be a life-of-the-party extravert. There is definitely room in the world for a quieter style of relating.
That said, it’s useful to have options. It’s good to know that we can manage common social situations if we want to, even if we find them difficult.
Work with, rather than against, your child’s (and your) social style in trying to build friendships. Try to figure out what your child enjoys doing that she could do with other children. Maybe there’s a new after-school activity she’d like to try. Kids make friends by doing fun things together.
You could try hosting one-on-one playdates at your home, so your daughter is on familiar turf and there’s no crowd or audience making her feel self-conscious. Focus efforts toward kids who are more likely to become your child’s friend because they have a lot in common with your child, including, perhaps, a similar social style.
Also consider hosting a family game night. We did this a lot when my kids were little: I’d invite another family over after dinner (so I didn’t even have to make a meal!), and we’d all play a game. If there were teams, we’d do kids versus the grown-ups. After the game, I’d serve fruit and dessert, then the kids would go off and the parents would chat. Some favorite games include: Uno Attack, Apples to Apples, Outburst, Catch Phrase, and Taboo.