Navigating the social environment can be hard for kids. Knowing how to influence our child to form friendships isn’t easy. What do you do when your child comes home from school and says; “Nobody likes me!”
Are you the frustrated parent who reacts?
“Well if you just let other people choose the game then maybe you would have some friends, that’s what happens when you are bossy”.
Maybe you reassure them?
“Don’t be silly. You’ve been invited to Jack’s house.”
“I don’t think that is right dear. Olivia is a good friend, she always comes over.”
These responses come from a good place. We want to spare our child from unpleasant feelings and to be successful with friendships.
Despite our good intention they don’t work.
Calling a child “bossy” isn’t an effective way to get them to listen to us and reassuring them can confuse them about their true feelings. It’s hard to watch as our child struggles. We know we can’t make friendships happen for our child. What can we do to support them?
The first step is empathy
Thinking you have no friends is awful. An empathetic response seeks to help a child navigate these tricky feelings.
So what does empathy look like when a child is experiencing a strong negative emotion ?
“I’m in it with you. I’m not here to fix you. I’m not here to feel it for you. I’m here to feel it with you and let you know you’re not alone.”
I LOVE this quote from Brené Brown, empathy expert. It sets the tone we need to keep as a firm and loving parent. Watch her TED talk about the difference between empathy and sympathy here
How do we put this into practice – how do we listen to a child’s concern and empathise effectively? Respond instead of reacting. Begin with actual listening and use words that soothe.
Words that soothe
Aim to soothe their stressed out emotional brain. Say something like:
“It sounds like you had a rough day” or “Something is bothering you about…..”
When your child is ready to tell you what happened, you can say something like:
“You felt hurt when she said that” or “How frustrating!” to show you understand.
Try loving touch
Some children prefer loving touch instead of words. Show you are here in the moment feeling it with them by reaching out. Literally. If you’re the chatty sort, staying silent can be really hard. Practice this; “Hug?”
Loving touch connects in the moment. It takes longer for oxytocin (the love hormone) to be released in boys, so hug boys for longer.
When kids are struggling with friendships it could be that they need to learn more social skills. Friendship experts say It takes an adult 200 hours to make a really good friend. So it must take much longer for children to develop social and emotional skills in which friendships. This ability evolves over time. Think of it as an ongoing curriculum across the course of a person’s life.
Parents learn a lot about what makes their child tick by observing them interacting with peers. Be the citizen scientist and observe how your child gets along with other kids in the playground. Teach these specific skills to support good friendship habits:
- Turn taking
Often we think of this skill as “sharing” but turn taking is what our child needs to learn to be successful in friendships. When your child shows that they can wait for someone else to take a turn or is making some steps towards being able to do this then they are on track to developing this skill. Notice and mention it.
“I noticed how you waited for your brother to finish with the scooter before you had a turn.”
Give them a chance to show that they can work out a fair solution by using their brain instead of telling them what to do. Kids need to practice making decisions to be able to make good decisions:
“There is one scooter and two children. How could you make sure everyone gets a fair turn?”
- Listening to others
Kids need to learn how to control their emotions before they can recognise others’ feelings. To encourage this habit model “I feel…..” statements. This builds emotional literacy. Children need to feel that they are being heard to before they can listen to others. Pay close attention to your child’s behaviour as it will give you clues to how they feel.
Find common interests
Find others who share a common interest. How much easier is it to make and keep friends when you are interested in the same things? This is low-hanging fruit in the friendship stakes so go for it.
What kind of friend is your child? Does your child prefer one friend to play alongside or are they the type who flits from group to group? Observe your child over time as this will give you clues about their temperament and interests. Give positive attention and supportive comments to develop your child’s understanding about the kind of person they are:
“I’ve noticed you like to play cricket, that is something you’ve always been interested in. You’re the kind of person who like cricket and you’ve found other friends who like it too.”
Some children avoid group interaction and are happy with a single friend, this is fine too:
“You like to play with one friend and make things together. How about we plan a baking session?”
Model how it’s done
Although we can’t make friends for our child, we can help create an environment for friendships to grow. Get some kids and parents over for an evening of board games or plan a camping or hiking trip outdoors. Kids make friends by playing and doing stuff together and we can model how to do it.