What is the best way to help children make friends? Every year, especially around the start of school, moms and dads the world over ask themselves this question. The truth is, the answer depends on the child.
In other words, there is no cookie cuter approach if your goal as a parent is to help children make friends.
A Word on Personality Types
Some children are more comfortable in social situations than others. As a result, some children find it easy to make friends. Parents often want to help children make friends, but to do so they have to understand what’s going on behind the scenes.
Children are just like adults in many respects, including the fact that some are sociable and others are not. But it would be a mistake to assume that the less sociable children are in any way at a disadvantage.
In many ways, the ability to make friends is purely a function of personality. Extroverts, for example, draw their energy from interactions with others. They like to talk and interact and be heard, because extroverts draw their energy from those with whom they interact.
On the flip side you have introverts, who tend to be more quiet and reserved. It’s not that they prefer isolation, but they draw their strength from within and do not rely on others for stimulation the way extroverts do.
If you want to help children make friends, you’ve got to pay attention to their personality type.
The differences in personality types are especially true for adults, but for children it gets a bit murky. Extroverted children tend to be more sociable and therefore have more friends.
Introverted children, however, are not as naturally comfortable in social situations, so many times worried parents perceive a problem where in fact there is none.
Some children are just shy, which is normal and certainly not cause for alarm. The truth of this statement though is often lost on worried parents, who have in their minds a vision of what a well-adjusted child should look like in social situations.
If a child is introverted, is it the parents’ responsibility to help them make friends? If it is, how do they go about doing that? If it isn’t, what should they be doing instead?
The actual answer to these questions has more to do with understanding what a child actually needs in the first place.
Let’s Talk about Sociability
Sociability is the degree to which a person is able to navigate social situations and to make friends. Like personality or mental illness, sociability exists on a spectrum, where “0” is low functioning autistic and “100” is full blown psychopathic narcissism.
One of the defining characteristics of autism is marked impairment in social situations. One of the defining characteristics of narcissism is the belief in a pre-ordained right to be the center of attention.
As should be evident, this is not an either-or situation. Each and every one of us falls somewhere on that spectrum, hopefully somewhere around the middle, where your social skills fall into a category that could best be described as “normal.”
But what is normal, exactly? More importantly, when should parents start to worry that their child’s behaviors are abnormal?
The answer is: it depends.
It depends on the child, their personality and what they want. If a child is an introvert and prefers to spend their time alone making sandcastles, that is not a defect of character or a sign of mental illness – that’s a normal, well-adjusted personality. Some kids play king of the mountain; some kids are content to dig in the sand.
Parents often make things worse by trying to fix things that aren’t even broken.
A Parable About Personality in Children
Many years ago, two upper middle class parents took their eleven-year-old son to see a prominent child psychologist. The parents had tried everything to make their child more sociable. They figured that group lessons at the local country club would be just what the doctor ordered. Golf lessons, tennis lessons, dance lessons, swimming lessons – the list was exhaustive.
But to their surprise, their son would come home every day in tears. He was obviously miserable but they didn’t know why. All the other children seemed to love having so much fun.
Why was their boy so different? Exasperated, they brought their son to the child psychologist and explained their plight.
After considering their story, the psychologist sat down with the boy and looked him in the eye. “Do you want to learn how to golf or to dance or to swim?” he asked.
The boy shook his head no.
“Well, what do you want?” the psychologist asked.
The boy’s lip began to quiver. “I want to learn how to paint.”
The parents looked at one another with surprise. “What should we do?” the father asked the psychologist.
The psychologist shrugged. He said: “I’d start by buying a brush.”
Parents often make the mistake of seeing their child as someone they should be, rather than as someone they actually are. Some kids will be king of the mountain. Some kids will play in the sand. And others will draw that scene for others to enjoy.
It all comes down to personal choice, which is a construct of personality. We can no more change this than we can the color of our skin.
So, How DO You Help Children Make Friends?
If parents want to help children make friends, they must first recognize that any attempt to do must first start in the home. Parents cannot waltz into a school and appropriate friends, but they can teach their child the concepts of self-worth and value.
Parents cannot prevent children from making “bad” friends, but they can instill in them a sense of morality. And parents cannot protect their children from the inevitable loss of childhood friends, but they can teach them self-confidence and esteem.
But if you are looking for actionable tips, consider the following:
- Don’t ever assume there is a one-size-fits-all way of parenting children. They are all unique and should be treated as such.
- If a child shows interest in something, do whatever you can to encourage that interest. You never know where it will lead.
- Spend time playing with children, especially in activities that promote imagination.
- Have honest (but kind) conversations with your child about the nature of friendship. Encourage them to ask questions, then answer them to the best of your ability.
- Consider using a registered play therapist in your area to teach you and your children self-esteem, healthy boundaries, and positive communication skills.
- Don’t ever assume your child knows what he or she is doing. Model healthy relationship behaviors. This starts in the home. The relationship between Mom and Dad is without question the most important one.
- Encourage, encourage, encourage.
- Let your child go at his or her own pace. Social skills take some time to develop. Be patient and kind.
If a child is comfortable in their own skin, there is no social situation they cannot handle. Our lives are the culmination of all the lessons we have learned, and the best strategy for parents is to ensure that our children feel empowered, confident and secure.
This is the real way to help children make friends. It also happens to be the best way to promote success in every aspect of their lives.
Randy Withers, LPC is a certified Family-Centered Therapist in North Carolina as well as the Editor of Blunt Therapy.
If your child suffers from social anxiety, the folks at Informed Therapy Resources have some incredible educational materials you should consider investing in. Better to address these issues now while they are still young.