Making Friends

Making Friends in Childhood (or adolescence)

For most children, friendships are an important part of childhood. Although not every child has a strong desire to connect with others and have friends, many do. Even for those who do not, 1 or 2 friendships over the lifetime is a reasonable expectation. However, some anxious children find it hard to interact with peers and to be in social situations. Often, they desperately want to be accepted by peers but their anxiety holds them back. Using some of the strategies below, you can start to help your child achieve his/her social goals and make friends.

Note: For some children, anxiety has held them back for so long that they may also lack social skills that could be quite helpful in making friends. If your child appears to be struggling with limited social skills, such as reading social cues, knowing how to join in a group, or sharing, among other skills, that this does not improve after using the steps outlined below, consider contacting a professional in your area who specializes in social skills training.

 

Step 1: Listen

First, give your child a chance to talk so you can understand better what may be at the heart of his/her struggle making and/or keeping friends. Some children feel left out and rejected by peers, while others worry about making mistakes or getting teased. Maintain a curious, supportive and caring attitude, and take care not to blame your child. If your child is not ready to talk yet, be patient. Knowing you are available to talk about friendships will allow your child to come to you when s/he is ready. To find out more, you may need to ask concrete questions, such as: 

  • Did you play/hang out with anyone today? 
  • What did you do together? 
  • Why do you like playing/hanging out with that friend?
  • What were some of the other kids doing? 
  • Is there someone at school that you would like to play/hang out with? (Get them thinking about who they might like to have as a friend)

Idea: Materials- paper and pencils. Ask your child to fold the paper in half. On one side, have your child write down all the students in his/her class. On the other side have him/her write out 1 (or more) fact(s) about each child. For example, Susie likes dolls; Jon is funny; JD runs fast. This way, you can ask about the children in your child’s class by name and learn more about them.

 

Step 2: Observe

Next, look for any behaviors in your child that may be a turn off to other children. For example, does your child avoid eye contact with other people? Does your child speak so softly that others can’t hear? Is your child reluctant to share or has trouble taking turns? These are examples of missing social skills. The good news is that these skills can be learned. You can begin at home, teaching your child these important skills through play. It is important to begin with 1 or 2 specific social skills, so as not to overwhelm or confuse your child. The following are some examples:

  • Body language skills (e.g. smiling, eye contact, posture, facial expression)
  • Voice quality (e.g. volume of speech, clarity)
  • Basic conversation skills (e.g. saying hello and goodbye, introductions, asking questions, etc.)
  • Friendship skills (e.g. offering help, sharing, asking to join in, using the phone)

 

Idea: Materials- Character toys such as people and animals. Together with your child, create a story using characters so that each character has a role to play. For example, a new child joins the class or some kids are teasing another child. These role-plays can be simple, such as practicing how to say hello and goodbye, or more challenging, such as starting a conversation, asking a question, or phoning a new friend. Begin with you showing your child what the skill looks like and then have your child practice. It may take several turns for your child to “get it.” Be patient and have fun learning together. Even if your child has good social skills, practicing using them can build confidence and reduce anxiety, allowing them to make friends successfully. Once your child is comfortable using the characters to act out common situations, you can then graduate to doing it “live.” For example, you take the part of another child and your child practices the new skill on you. You can even practice out in the community at a local park or library. Finally, using praise can increase confidence. Try saying, “Thanks for sharing. Kids like it when you take turns.”

Note: If your child needs some extra help learning the skill, consider using TV shows/movies or time in the community to “catch” others using the skill.

 

Step 3: Create friendship goals

Finally, ask your child to create a friendship goal to help increase his/her chances of making new friends. Depending on how socially anxious your child is, you may need to start with very small friendship goals. It is important to work on 1 goal at a time, and that you wait until 1 goal is reached before moving on to the next. Some friendship goals might include: 

  • Asking a friend over for a play date
  • Asking to borrow something
  • Asking to join in (e.g. a game)
  • Asking to play with a child (even before recess starts)
  • Phoning a classmate 
  • Sharing a toy with another student
  • Saying "Hi" to a classmate

Idea: Materials- paper, pencils and stickers. Encourage your child to create a “success” chart to track his/her progress. At the top of the page, have your child write out his/her goal. Underneath s/he can write out the days of the week or draw boxes to represent the number of times s/he wants to practice the goal. Each time s/he practices, a sticker is placed next to the date or in the box. Even if the practice does not go as planned, the sticker is awarded for effort not outcome. If it doesn’t go well, review what happened and do a few more practices before your child tries again in the real situation. If it appears that this is too hard for your child, you can use the Facing-My-Fears worksheet to meet his/her friendship goal.

 

Tips

Encourage extra-curricular activities. Organized clubs, lessons or sports are all opportunities for your child to meet peers. Your child is guaranteed to have at least 1 thing in common with the others. It also gives your child a chance to meet new peers outside of the classroom or school, which can diversify his/her social options.  

Set up regular play dates. Help your child nurture 1 or 2 friendships through regular play dates. First, ask your child whom s/he would like to invite over. If your child has difficulty thinking of someone, ask the teacher which classmate might be a good choice. Choose an activity that will be engaging for your child and his/her peer, such as a new game, baking together, art and craft activity, etc. In the beginning you may want to supervise to help the playdate run smoothly but as your child gets more comfortable over time, you can hang back more. After each playdate, talk with your child about how it went. Find out what parts your child found easy and fun and what parts were hard and may need more practice.

Have a regular family games night. Playing games with your child gives you a chance to witness how your child plays. You can note his/her strengths and also see the areas that need some coaching. This will also give you an idea of what kinds of successful games or activities to include on future play dates.   

Give your child “icebreakers”. Pack some snacks or a fun toy in your child’s backpack or bag to share with other classmates. 

Recruit the teacher (or school counselor). Your child’s teacher (or school counselor) probably has ideas about how to help your child build social skills and foster friendships with other classmates.  Some schools offer friendship clubs or social skills groups, which can really help a shy or anxious child.

Remember. Take care not to make your child feel like h/she is being forced to make friends. When a child is anxious, too much pressure can make him/her feel even more self-conscious and insecure. Gentle coaching, encouragement and praise for bravery are key. And since not all children are social butterflies, allow your child extra time to observe a situation before joining in. Let your child progress at his/her own pace.

 

Making Friends in Adolescence (or childhood)

For most teens, friendships are an important part of adolescence. Although not every teen has a strong desire to connect with others and have friends, many do. Even for those who do not, 1 or 2 friendships over the lifetime is a reasonable expectation. However, some anxious teens find it hard to interact with peers and to be in social situations. Often, they desperately want to be accepted by peers but their anxiety holds them back. Using some of the strategies below, you can start to help your teen achieve their social goals and make friends.

Note: For some teens, anxiety has held them back for so long that they may also lack social skills that could be quite helpful in making friends. If your teen appears to be struggling with limited social skills, such as reading social cues, knowing how to join in a group, or sharing, among other skills, and these do not improve after using the steps outlined below, consider contacting a professional in your area who specializes in social skills training.

 

Step 1: Listen

First, find a time when your teen is open to talking and you are ready to listen. For some teens, they may feel more comfortable talking while doing something else, such as being on a walk, cooking, or playing basketball. Give your teen a chance to explore with you what may be at the heart of his/her struggle with friendships. Some teens find they are repeatedly left out and rejected by peers, while others worry about making mistakes or getting teased. Friendships are complicated in adolescence and there may be many factors involved. Maintain a curious, supportive and caring attitude, and take care not to blame your teen. If s/he is not ready to talk yet, be patient. Knowing you are available to talk means s/he can come to you when s/he is ready. To find out more, you may need to ask concrete questions, such as: 

  • Did you hang out with anyone today? 
  • What did you do together? 
  • Why do you like hanging out with that friend?
  • What were some of the other kids doing? 
  • Is there someone you might want to hang out with? (Get them thinking about who they might like to have as a friend)

Step 2: Observe

Next, look for any behaviors in your teen that may be a turn off to his/her peers.  For example, does your teen avoid eye contact with other people? Does s/he speak so softly that others can’t hear? Does your teen make inappropriate remarks in large groups, or freeze in 1-on-1 situations? These are examples of missing social skills. The good news is that these are skills that can be learned. You can begin at home and in the community, teaching your child these important skills through interactions with you and observing others. It is important to begin with 1 or 2 specific social skills, so as not to overwhelm your teen. The following are some examples:

  • Body language skills (e.g. smiling, eye contact, posture, facial expression)
  • Voice quality (e.g. volume of speech, clarity)
  • Basic conversation skills (e.g. saying hello and goodbye, introductions, asking questions, etc.)
  • Friendship skills (e.g. offering help, sharing, asking to join in, using the phone)

 

Idea: Together with your child, identify what skill/s s/he wants to work on. Begin by showing your teen what the skill looks like either through your own actions or via TV shows/movies, or by watching people in the community. Then have your teen practice. If your teen seems uncomfortable practicing face-to-face with you, try doing it while engaged in another activity, such as out walking or while driving in the car. It may take several turns for your child to “get it,” so be patient. Use praise to increase confidence: “I like how you said that. I think that will help you find someone to sit with at lunch.” Once your teen is comfortable practicing in this way, you can then graduate to doing it “live.” You can have your teen choose a situation where this skill would be useful and then practice it out in the community. In general, it is important to review and practice new skills with your teen prior to social outings. Anxious teens feel more confident if they have a plan.  

 

Step 3: Create friendship goals

Finally, ask your teen to create a friendship goal that s/he can work towards to increase his/her chances of making new friends. Depending on how socially anxious your youth is, you may need to start with very small goals. It is important to work on 1 goal at a time, and that you wait until 1 goal is reached before moving on to the next. Some goals might include: 

  • Asking a peer to hang out after school
  • Asking to borrow something
  • Asking to join in (e.g. a game)
  • Joining in a conversation
  • Phoning or texting a classmate 
  • Saying "Hi" to a classmate

Idea: Materials- mobile device. Encourage your teen to track his/her progress. S/he can create a file in his/her phone or tablet to list day, goal and outcome. Each time s/he practices, s/he can type in the outcome. Even if the practice does not go as planned, your teen can record that s/he did the practice and take credit for the effort not outcome. If it doesn’t go well, review what happened and do a few more practices before your teen tries again in the real situation. If it appears that this is too hard for your teen, you can choose to use the Facing-My-Fears worksheet to meet his/her goal.

 

Tips

Encourage extra-curricular activities. Organized clubs, lessons or sports are all opportunities for your teen to meet peers. Your teen is guaranteed to have at least 1 thing in common with the others. It also gives your teen a chance to meet new peers outside of the classroom or school, which can diversify his/her social options.

Support your teen hanging out. Help your teen connect with peers through supporting him/her going to places where other teens hangout. You can drop your teen off at the mall on a weekend or go with him or her to local venues or events that attracts teens. For other teens, they may prefer to invite a friend along on a family outing such as going to the movies, a football or hockey game, or an outdoor activity (e.g. hiking). 

Have a regular family games night. Playing games with your teen gives you a chance to witness how your teen plays. You can note his or her strengths and also see the areas that need some coaching.

Recruit the teacher (or school counselor). Your teen’s teacher (or school counselor) probably has ideas about how to help your teen build social skills and foster friendships with other classmates. Some schools offer social groups or clubs during lunch. This could be a simple way for your teen to have access to like-minded peers.

Remember...take care not to make your teen feel like h/she is being forced to make friends. When a teen is anxious, too much pressure can make him/her feel even more self-conscious and insecure. Gentle coaching, encouragement and praise for bravery are key. And since not all adolescents are social butterflies, allow your teen extra time to observe a situation before joining in. Let your teen progress at his/her own pace.