It is frequently the case that students who are most often cast aside, labeled or ignored — shy, withdrawn and hyperactive children, even bullies — all struggle from an inability to manage social cues and effectively convey their natural desire to make friends.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), these issues are only likely to grow as school populations increase. Last year, approximately 50 million students attended public elementary and secondary schools. Of these, over 35 million were in prekindergarten through eighth grade, with nearly 15 million in grades nine through 12. The latter number is expected to rise this fall.
There are a number of ways for your child to fit in and not only make friends, but also be a great friend to others.
Dr. Mary Rooney, a psychologist with the Child Mind Institute who specializes in disruptive behavior disorders, including ADHD, says supervised play dates are a wonderful way to help younger kids make and keep friends in lightly controlled social situations. In preparing for the play date, discuss behavioral expectations with your child and advise them to look for signals that their guests have tired of an activity and are ready to move on to the next one.
The ability to read body language is another way kids learn to correct inappropriate behavior, so have discussions with them about how to read certain cues from their friends. The experts at the Child Mind Institute frequently recommend role playing at home as an effective way of helping children work on social skills needed at school. Emphasize to your children the importance of sharing and taking turns and remind them that their friends expect the same treatment. Ask what they think the consequences might be when this does not occur.
Children with behavioral issues will especially benefit from role-playing scenarios at home since it can help them deal with stressful and provocative situations they may feel too overwhelmed to deal with appropriately when the time comes.
Educators agree that one of the best ways to teach a particular skill or behavior is to first model it for your child. While this is often easier said than done, allowing your child to view you and your healthy relationships with friends can convey this message simply and effectively.
Parents can help in other ways, too. One is by not becoming overly involved in their child’s spats and arguments with peers. Of course, it’s important to intervene or at least interject when teachable moments present themselves, or the conflict has become larger than the child’s skill set or temperament can tolerate.
Dr. Jamie Howard, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, advises that, “As long as the children don’t veer into play that’s outright dangerous, let the play date unfold as it may.”
When it comes to play dates for younger children up to middle-school, Howard believes in a moderately hands-off approach for civil play, but adds that it’s a good idea for parents to review the time the child spent with friends and point out positive aspects of the behavior of all involved, while taking care to single out any favorable behavior on the part of your child.
“Kids are more motivated by praise than by avoiding criticism,” Howard says. “Specific, labeled praise is most helpful. Instead of ‘good job,’ say, ‘you shared very well with your friend.”
When it comes to the shy child, making friends is an activity that is regularly fraught with anxiety, but experts warn that it’s important that parents not go to the extreme when it comes to protecting their shy or withdrawn child from more assertive peers and situations where they may potentially encounter conflict, as Rachel Busman, a psychologist and specialist on childhood anxiety, observes in an interview with childmind.com.
“There’s a difference between accommodating and enabling. For shyer kids we want to give them opportunities to meet new kids, but we want to help bridge the transition so they aren’t too uncomfortable,” Busman says.
Timid and introspective children often miss key opportunities to overcome these types of challenges because well-meaning parents and other adults fail to allow them to experience the discomfort inevitably encountered when managing these relationships. There is no triumph like the triumph of a child who’s conquered a fear or particularly daunting challenge. It is often these smaller challenges that provide the biggest boosts to a child’s self-esteem and confidence in social situations.
Experts encourage parents to have their children practice managing peer-introductions; teach them to get in the habit of smiling without staring at those who make eye contact. A quick smile at another student having a bad day or unpleasant moment can quickly cement a friendship that lasts for years.
For children who continue having trouble fitting in or finding their place within a certain social circle, Rooney recommends that parents make time to discuss any concerns regarding social skills with their child’s teachers. Teachers are often a trove of vital information on the way your child interacts with other students away from you, and the other students’ responses to those interactions.
“Often kids will say ‘everyone hates me,’ but they may not be able to describe what’s going on,” says Rooney. A frank conversation with the child’s teacher can nip many social issues in the bud before they become more serious social anxiety problems. Such a discussion may also offer valuable insight into emotions your child may have at school that they’re hesitant to share at home.
It can be painful to watch children flounder in social situations. But if they know they’ve got the inner resources to handle what comes their way, their outer-being will reflect that confidence, and that can make them an attractive friend to have.