How To Help Your Child Make New Friends
Watching very young children make friends is extraordinary in its simplicity. They look at each other and ask, “Do you want to be my friend?” That’s it. Then they run off and play.
For the rest of us, making friends is not quite that easy. For adolescents who are negotiating complex social hierarchies in schools, with their rules about who you should be and who you should see, it can be even harder.
How many friends does a child need?
This is a question I’m asked all the time. It seems parents want a magic number, the number that will make their child ‘normal’. The number that will make their child happy and assure themselves all is well.
There is no such magic number…because humans are all different. An introvert might want a few close friendships whereas an extrovert may want lots of friends and social acquaintances. This preference shouldn’t be confused with loneliness.
Psychologist Michael Unger PhD says that kids who grow up in highly stimulating environments with lots of responsibility, such as kids on farms, may need fewer friendships. They are strongly connected to their environment and have a strong sense of their niche in the world. A child in the suburbs, alone in a big house while mum and dad work, may need more social connection.
Sometimes we unconsciously impose our needs onto our kids. Just because we have lots of friends doesn’t mean our kids need the same number. Just because we were super popular at school doesn’t mean that should be the aim for our child. Likewise, if we were unpopular at school, we shouldn’t be using our kids to get a second shot at it.
If your child is happy and not just relying on one or two people at school to meet all their social needs, they have the right number of friends.
Regardless of disposition, it is helpful to ensure that kids have friends in different contexts: Friends at school, family friends, sporting or club friends, co-curricular friends and friends of different ages. That way, if there is a conflict with a friend, as there most definitely will be at some point, there are other kids to turn to.
When do kids feel vulnerable?
Transition times are the points at which kids feel most vulnerable when it comes to friendships. Common transition times include starting middle school or senior school, moving homes, school districts, or migrating to a new state or country. All come with obvious change and isolation.
Another vulnerable stage in life is early adolescence. In this phase, children are developing physically, emotionally and socially at different rates. Some kids still want to play on the monkey bars, while others have moved onto music and fashion and an interest in romantic relationships. This often leads to friendships drifting apart.
In these cases, one child will likely feel very hurt. Acknowledge that hurt, it is very human. However, assure them that they will make other friends. Friendships come and go, and many serve us for a while but not forever.
Adolescence is also the period of their lives when kids move their focus from their parents to their peers. So, if there is a friendship issue, it changes the colour of their whole life. Deal with it in a way that is supportive but ensures growth. Coaching kids through these times, instead of swooping in to save them, is an important way of helping them learn resilience and how to manage and soothe their own emotions in the future.
How can you help your child develop friends?
- First of all, ensure they understand and believe they are worthy of good friends. Low self-esteem and bad experiences may lead kids to doubt this fact.
- Ask, “Who do you like yourself around? What do those people have in common?” If they feel good around their cousin Anika, ask what it is about Anika that makes them feel that way. This self-awareness is important and could benefit most of us! It will help kids find their tribe rather than just hanging out with anyone who will have them.
- Help kids find opportunities to make new friends. Make sure they are involved in activities that they care about. That’s where they are going to meet like-minded people of different ages. They can join clubs and organisations outside of school.
- Encourage your child to be brave. Making new friends can be frightening, but just because they’re scared doesn’t mean they can’t be brave.
- Teach them to smile and say hello. Someone has to make the first move. If you need to, practise some basic social skills like making eye contact. The earlier you teach these skills the better.
- Remind them it is easier to make friends one-on-one than trying to make your way into a new social group straight away. It’s easier to strike up a conversation with the kid they sit next to in mathematics than to approach a group in the schoolyard.
- If they are trying to join a new group, tell them to watch quietly for a while. Join in with the conversations about the things the group are interested in rather than immediately talking about themself or taking over the conversation.
- Try not to romanticise friendship in your home. No friendship is perfect and friendships end. We don’t want kids to have a completely unrealistic view of these relationships, otherwise as soon as something goes wrong, they will think they have failed and disconnect.
- Make your home a place that other kids like visiting. Encourage your child to invite people over. Snacks and a friendly atmosphere can make all the difference.
- Remind your child that making friends takes time. It won’t happen overnight, friendship, like all good things, takes time.
I’m not sure when the simplicity of early childhood disappears from friendships. Probably around age five or six when we develop the self-awareness that we might be rejected. We stop being so brave. If we can rekindle that bravery at any age it would be transformative for all of us. Because, let’s face it, there are too many lonely people in the world who simply can’t find the courage to say hello.