A friend in need?
Whether it’s the conspicuous lack of invites to parties or spotting your little one sat alone in the playground, friendship problems spark huge anxiety for parents. To a certain extent it’s right to be concerned if your child has trouble making friends, as friendships are fundamentally important for your child’s emotional well-being and self-confidence. However, bear in mind that all children have friendship blips from time to time and remember that your child’s limited friendships are only really a problem if your child is unhappy. Some little people are perfectly content having just one friend or spending a lot of time on their own.
Try not to make too much of a big deal about your child’s social circle (or lack of it) as he may feel he’s disappointing you - which could make him more anxious and exacerbate the problem.
Instead, try to conceal your concerns, convey a confidence that things will improve and focus on following the practical strategies outlined below.
1. Listen to your child’s worries
• If your child tells you that other children “won’t let” him play, or shares other worries about friendships, listen and accept his feelings. Let him know that you take his concerns seriously and are on his side.
• Don’t play down his fears. Instead validate feelings: “Ooh so they wouldn’t let you join in, I’m not surprised you’re feeling hurt”
• Whether your child is having difficulties with friendships because she is quiet and reserved or because she is overly boisterous and controlling, be careful of labelling your child. Labels such as ‘bossy’ or ‘shy’ can be very self-fulfilling and may trap your child in exactly the kind of role you want her to avoid.
• If it seems your child is being treated cruelly or being bullied by children you may wish to step in, or raise your concerns with teachers or activity leaders.
2. Be a good role model
• Children learn from watching others so your behaviour can inadvertently influence how you child interacts with other children. For example, some children who have strict, controlling parents can find they get accused of being bossy. Or if you feel anxious in social situations, you may find your little one is also nervous.
• The plus side of this is that you can act as a very valuable role model for your child. So show an interest in new people you meet; be polite and friendly, listen and ask questions. With friends, your partner and relatives demonstrate basic social rules like sharing belongings, being considerate and thoughtful and compromising over decisions. Combine this subtle teaching with direct guidance through role play…
3. Practice makes perfect! Use role play.
• Use role play as a fun way to help your child to learn to relate better in social situations. Role play helps children to rehearse how to deal with potentially anxiety provoking situations and equips them with skills to help them feel more confident with friends.
• Begin by teaching your child how to approach a group, enter a conversation or begin an interaction. When your child is playing, approach him, pause and watch him play for a while, and then say something like: “Wow Katie, that looks fun. Do you mind if I play?”
• Show responses to refusal and acceptance i.e. “Great, thanks, which pieces can I use?” or “OK, maybe another time”
• With time you can practice other skills such as how to share things, how to compromise etc.
• You could also try role play with dolls, cuddly toys or puppets. Act out situations such as approaching friends in the playground or inviting friends to start a game. Show your child how to respond by first playing the role of the child trying to make an approach, then swapping over.
4. Set up (monitored) play dates at home
• If your child is repeatedly getting himself into trouble with friends, it’s easy to find yourself avoiding contact with other children through fear of negative reactions from other parents. This sets up an unfortunate vicious cycle whereby your child has little opportunity to practice social skills and becomes increasingly isolated.
• Step out of this cycle by gradually increasing opportunities for positive play experiences by inviting friends over. Initially ask friends who are most likely to be positive role models i.e. children who are outgoing and have good social skills.
Do not leave this play time unstructured. Set up the visit so it has a clear purpose and structure. Plan with your child in advance a cooperative activity that he and the other child would like to do together e.g. baking, working on a craft activity, building a den or playing football.
• When your child and his friend are playing nicely, praise co-operative behaviour and comment on how they are becoming good friends “You two are working really well together! You make a perfect team”
• Keep the visits relatively brief to increase chances of success. Monitor your child and his friend closely and watch for signs of problems. If either is getting a little frustrated, take a break with a snack or change activity.
• If you can see a disagreement brewing, take the role of ‘coach’ from the sidelines – define the problem and ask for solutions: “Okay, we have a problem, there’s only one lightsaber and you both want to play with it. Do you have any ideas for how we can solve this?” Praise all attempts at problem solving.
5. Praise and reward social skills
• Whenever your child is interacting nicely with other children, praise the kind of social skills you want to see more of e.g. sharing, taking turns, waiting, helping someone. Be specific: “I noticed you waited quietly for your turn, even though you were itching to have a go; that was really patient of you!”
• You may want to provide additional reinforcement for positive behaviour by using a star chart. Decide on a social behaviour to work on e.g. sharing, compromising, waiting. Focus on only one type of behaviour at a time.
• Clearly define the behaviour you are looking for, framing the behaviour in positive words: ‘Callum waits patiently for his turn’ (not: ‘Callum does not grab things’). Agree on a small treat for when an (achievable) amount of stars have been gained.
• Watch out for examples of the behaviour, label it, praise it and put a star on the chart. Give your child the pre-agreed gift when the stars have been achieved.
If you’ve tried all these strategies but your child continues to have repeated conflicts with friends, is chronically unhappy about their lack of friends or shows absolutely no interest in relating to other people, it would be advisable to seek professional support.