Sure, winning the lottery would be nice, but what parents really want is for their children to be happy and healthy. We want to raise good humans who are loved, safe, and kind to others. As parents, we certainly have a lot of say in how our children are raised, but there are also elements of their personality that may determine their own path in life. It’s a balancing act between “nature and nurture” when it comes to raising children—and also why being a parent is the adventure of a lifetime.
But what happens when your child doesn’t have many friends or struggles to maintain the little friendships they do have? This can be a source of major stress for parents (and possibly the child) once they have passed the parallel-playing stage and are expected to be able to form friendships by societal standards. Parents may even have tried to schedule playdates to help encourage friendships, but their child still struggles to make friends. This may be even more true of children who are more introverted and highly sensitive in nature.
The last thing a parent wants to think about is their child feeling lonely and ostracized. Parents want their child to find friends who accept and celebrate them for who they are. It doesn’t even have to be many friends—having one good friend is a gift for anyone. We reached out to a child development/parenting expert Claire Lerner to seek guidance on how to foster children’s friendships.
Read on for expert advice on the value of childhood friendships and how best to support a child’s friendship development.
The Importance of Friendship for Children
At our age, we certainly understand the value of our personal friendships. The power of a good friend can never be understated. According to Claire, this is also true of our children’s friendships. Claire shared that childhood friendships help “children develop critical social skills—problem-solving, empathy, collaboration—and also feed their souls through the power of human connection just like it does for adults.”
Having friends as a child, in fact, does matter. However, Claire explained, “the number of friends is not what matters. What matters is that a child has made connections with other children with whom they can collaborate, explore together, experience joy, whether it is two friends or 20 friends.” When children have a friend(s), this relationship is an important part of their social, emotional, and mental development.
Why Some Children May Find it More Challenging to Make Friends
Parents may notice that for some children, it is easier to make friends than others. This may cause concern when you are the parent of a child who struggles with establishing and maintaining friendships. According to Claire, there are a variety of factors that can affect a child’s ability to make friends, including the lack of opportunity to form friendships. Unfortunately, during the period of social distancing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, this reduction of social engagement has directly affected some young children’s friendships.
However, Claire pointed out that “temperament often plays a big role [in a child’s ability to make friends]. Children who are more slow to warm up by nature need more time to feel comfortable in new situations and with new people and more support from adults in the process.” On the other hand, children who are more extroverted by nature may develop friendships more organically. In addition, “children who are more inflexible [and] who have a very strong need to be in control may have more challenges in developing friendships because this requires collaboration, tuning in to and accepting other people’s interests/ideas/perspectives, which can be harder for kids who are more rigid and need to always feel in charge,” Claire said.
Why a child finds making and keeping friends challenging is nuanced, individualized, and can be multi-layered. Claire provided some examples of possible explanations as to why a child may be struggling with friendships:
- “It might be that they have a low sensory threshold and being around other kids feels overwhelming, so they protect themselves by playing alone.”
- “It may be that they need to be in control and get easily upset when kids have different ideas about how to approach the activity they are engaged in.”
- “It may be that they crave intense physical input and so they are inadvertently too rough with their peers, who then avoid them.”
- “It may be that they are delayed in their play skills and don’t know how to enter and sustain play with other children.”
How Parents Can Help Their Child Make (and Keep) Friends
Parents want to support the well-being of their children and, as Claire explained, friendship development is an important part of their childhood. Claire advised parents to pay close attention if their child doesn’t have any friends (or struggles to maintain them), regardless of how old the child is.
“If a child doesn’t have any friends, that is definitely something you want to understand: what the obstacle is for your child so you can address the root cause and provide the experiences and support they need to forge friendships.” She suggested tuning into your child to get to the root cause so you can help your child address the underlying issue.
Some questions parents should consider, according to Claire, are:
- How does your child react in [social] situations?
- What do your child’s teacher and other caregivers observe?
- What do your child’s behaviors mean?
It is possible that parents may not have all the answers to these questions. Claire also explained that parents may need to consult “with a child development specialist who can help you decode the meaning of your child’s behavior and then come up with strategies to support them by addressing the root cause.” Below are some potential solutions Claire shared that can assist your child in expanding their friendship circle:
- “If they have a hard time with collaboration, a social skills group might help.”
- “If they are slow to warm up, you might ask their teacher to identify one or two kids in the class who might be a good fit for your child and plan some playdates so your child has a chance to forge a connection in the safety of their home that can then extend to the playground/classroom, etc.”
What Parents Should Avoid Doing When They are Concerned About Their Children’s Friendships
It can be very upsetting for parents if their child doesn’t have any friends. Seeing a child alone and sad can break a parent’s heart. However, Claire shared some actions to avoid when trying to help your child make friends. She stated, “You want to avoid pressure or communicating to your child that you are upset or disappointed in their lack of friendships. If a child is having a hard time making friends, it is likely that they are already experiencing some feelings of being ‘less-than’ or sadness, loneliness, and even shame. If children get a sense that their lack of friends is now causing their parents to be distressed, frustrated, anxious, or disappointed, it causes the child more stress.”
If your child is struggling to make friends, there are many ways a parent can get involved to provide the tools and strategies to help the child make friends (and keep them). Remember, even having only one great friend is a wonderful gift. For further information on this topic, you may want to read Claire’s article When Kids Act Mean: Why Some Kids Have Trouble Being Kind and What You Can Do.