Q: All the other kids in my son’s class have a best friend or a group of close friends, but my boy always seems to be left out. He’s never invited to playdates or birthday parties, and nobody picks him as a partner for group projects. My heart is breaking for him. He’s so lonely. How can I help my child make friends at school?
Making friends at school doesn’t come naturally for every child
For a variety of reasons, some children aren’t able to connect with peers and can become isolated and withdrawn. And that can have a snowball effect into adolescence, according to a study of third to fifth graders.
The study concluded that children who had friends were less likely to report feeling depressed than peers who did not. And for kids who were naturally shy and withdrawn, friendships shielded against sadness.
“Friendship promotes resilience and protects at-risk kids from internalizing problems such as feeling depressed and anxious,” said lead author William M. Bukowski, a psychology professor at Concordia University, in an article about the findings.
But how can you help a child who can’t seem to make friends at school? Phyllis Fagell, school counselor, therapist and author of “Middle School Matters,” said first you need to identify why a child isn’t connecting with their peers.
Common hurdles to friendship
A lack of social skills could be the problem, Fagell said, when a child wants to dictate the rules of every game or doesn’t know how to seamlessly enter a conversation. A few lessons in social graces or a social skills class through a therapist may help.
But these behaviors also could signal an underlying problem. Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, for example, can struggle with impulsivity, Fagell said. Gifted children have their own challenges.
“Social relationships often are negatively impacted by [a gifted child’s] tendency to lose interest with the day-to-day triviality that typifies most relationships during childhood,” writes Christine Fonseca, an educational psychologist, in her book, Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students. “Instead these children would prefer to focus on larger world problems or things that are abstract and complex – most of which is not appealing to typical nongifted peers. The result is a combination of frustration and avoidance, neither of which move toward strong interpersonal relationships.”
In other cases, kids who just don’t know how to embrace their differences can have trouble, Fagell said. In the book, Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World,author Mitch Prinstein writes about how kids can control some aspects of themselves, such as their kindness and empathy toward others, and can’t control others, such as their family’s wealth or their athletic ability. “What he writes about is that kids who understand what’s in their control and what’s out of their control and embrace the idea that there are things they can’t control actually do better,” Fagell said.
And for some kids, social anxiety, a fear of interacting with others, can make connecting with peers difficult. But Fagell cautions that not all children who lack a bunch of besties are struggling. Some may just be introverts who prefer quiet time over playdates.
“I often have to reassure parents that if your child doesn’t want a playdate after school, but their teachers and outside coaches are all saying that when they’re with their friends, they’re acting normally and developmentally appropriately and they’re liked and your child isn’t unhappy, there’s nothing to fix,” she said.
Still, she said, there are few kids who don’t need at least one or two friends. If they aren’t getting invited to any birthday parties or playdates, parents can lend a helping hand.
Make comfortable interactions a goal
For children who need to brush up on their social skills, provide them with opportunities to interact with a wide range of kids. That might include children from church, school or sports teams. “If you pin all your hopes on that one kid who seems to accept them and who is nice, it could end up backfiring if [your child’s lack of social skills] are just too much for that child to manage,” Fagell said.
Fan the flames of friendship
If there’s another child who seems to be a match, but your child just can’t take the friendship to the next level, organize activities that they can do side by side such as a trip to a bowling alley or trampoline park. “Something where there is less of a burden on them to just sit and talk to each other,” Fagell said.
Focus on their strengths
If your child loves to cook, sign them up for a cooking class. If they can’t stop coding, get them involved in a computer program. “Look for whatever would play to their strengths and wherever their interests intersect where they’ll meet other kids who have something in common with them and where they’ll likely feel good about themselves,” she said.
Don’t pull them from school … yet
If they’re not making friends in their current school, make sure you’ve determined why first, she said. “The answer isn’t to pick them up and put them in a new environment,” she said. “They are just going to create the same dynamic with peers right away if you haven’t addressed the issues.”
Partner with the school
“Talk to coaches, talk to school counselors, talk to their teacher to find out if they have any information that’s helpful for why they might be struggling. Then, have them identify appropriate matches and ask the school to do what they can to encourage those matches such as during school projects or moving around seating charts. The counselor could even invite them out to lunch.”
“Structure counts. Sports and music and volunteer opportunities, visits with cousins and dragging kids along to events we participate in like the neighborhood BBQ are all great strategies to bring a shy child into closer proximity with new peers. But while we can insist our child participate, we shouldn’t emphasize new friendships. Better to let proximity and continuity over time work their own magic. Eventually, if there is a good fit, a child will begin relationships with other children that match her interests and activity level.”
Michael Ungar, Family therapist and researcher at Dalhousie University