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When Children Have Trouble Making Friends

Many children have trouble making friends or getting along with others at some point during their school years. Sometimes these problems go away by themselves over time. However, being ignored or teased by classmates can be painful for children. When problems with friends are long-lasting, children may need help from parents and teachers to find ways to improve their situation.

Often, it is difficult for parents to know who they can talk to or what they can do if they are worried about their child’s friendships. Some of the most common questions asked by parents are listed below.

Q: How can I find out if my child is getting along with others?

A: Sometimes children will talk to their parents if they are feeling lonely or if they are not getting along with others at school. But often parents have to seek out information to find out how friendships are going for children.

First, classroom teachers are often the best place to start for information. Teachers see children interacting with others in the classroom, at lunch, and at recess. Teachers also have a good sense of what is “normal” for children at different ages in terms of friendships and social behavior. Teachers can often provide information about how your child behaves toward others and also about how other children treat your child at school. Teachers often can provide an informed opinion about how typical or unusual your child’s behavior and friendship problems are compared to other children of the same age. Teachers may not provide this information spontaneously, but will often share their opinions about a child’s behavior and friendships if parents ask them directly. Other adults who see your child in a group setting (such as a scout leader, swimming instructor, day care provider) may also be able to answer questions about the social behaviors they have seen.

Second, parents can look for a chance to watch how their child behaves when he/she is with other children. Some schools will let parents visit for a day to see how their child is behaving and being treated at school. Parents can also pay attention to the behaviors they see when their child is with a playmate or at a group activity. Are there behaviors that might annoy other children? Are there behaviors that would be pleasing to other children? How do other children respond to your child?

Third, parents can encourage their child to talk about how things are going with other children. For example, parents can ask their child about who he/she likes to play with and what they like to do together. Parents can ask whether the child feels comfortable with the friends he/she has at school or whether he/she feels lonely sometimes. Showing interest and asking questions about how things are going with other children at school can help parents learn about possible problem areas.

Q: How can I tell what is causing my child’s friendship problems?

A: Children can have problems making friends and getting along with others for several reasons. Some of the more common reasons are listed below. Different types of friendship problems are also described.

One of the most common reasons for friendship problems is behavior that annoys other children. Children, like adults, do not like behavior that is bossy, self-centered, or disruptive. It is simply not fun to play with someone who doesn’t share or doesn’t follow the rules. Sometimes children who have learning problems or attention problems can have trouble making friends because they find it hard to understand and follow the rules of games. Children who get angry easily and lose their temper when things don’t go their way can also have a hard time getting along with others.

Children can also have friendship problems because they are very shy and feel uncomfortable and unsure of themselves around others. Sometimes children are ignored or teased by classmates because there is something “different” about them that sets them apart from the other children.

There is an important difference between not being “popular” and having friendship problems. Some children are outgoing and have many friends. Other children are quite content with just a good friend or two. Either one of these friendship patterns is fine. Friendship problems are something to be concerned about when:

  1. the teacher reports that your child is getting into trouble with other children or treating them poorly,
  2. your child seems to be actively disliked by other children, and/or
  3. when other children are teasing your child and making him/her feel lonely and upset.

Parents should also think about how long the problem has lasted. It is not unusual for children to worry about friends when they have moved into a new class or new school. Sometimes children will show problems with friends when they are upset about another change in their lives, such as parental separation or divorce or the birth of a sibling. When friendship problems emerge during a “transition” time for the child, they may signal that the child needs extra support from the parent and teacher at that time. When friendship problems have been stable and have existed for a long time, however, children may need direct help to develop friendships.

Q: What can be done to help children develop friendships?

A: Different children have different needs when it comes to helping them make friends and get along better with others. The age of the child, the kinds of behaviors that are part of the problem, the reasons for the friendship problem — all of these may affect the helping strategy.

One helping strategy involves social skill training. In this strategy, a trained helper (usually a counselor or a teacher) helps children learn the skills needed to make and keep friends. These skills might include sharing, cooperation, helping, and other prosocial skills. The skills might also include anger management and conflict resolution skills. Sometimes social skill training is done individually with children, but often it is done in a small group.

Another helping strategy focuses on helping children who are having trouble getting along with others because of angry, aggressive, or bossy behavior. Often parents are included in programs to help these children develop better anger management skills and to help children reduce fighting. Trained counselors, educators, or psychologists work with parents to help them find positive discipline strategies and positive communication skills so that the parents can help their children get along better with others. Sometimes teachers will be involved in reward systems designed to help children learn positive behavior to replace aggressive behaviors in the classroom.

A third helping strategy focuses on finding a good social “niche” for the child. Sometimes a teacher can organize cooperative learning groups that help an isolated child make friends in the classroom. Sometimes parents can help by inviting potential friends over to play or getting their child involved in a social activity outside of school that is rewarding (such as scouting, church group, sports groups).

Q: How can I get help?

A: Sometimes it is difficult for parents to know whether their child needs help making friends, and how to go about finding possible sources of help in their community. There are several people who can be useful sources of information for parents:

  1. classroom teachers and school counselors can be helpful, both by providing information about the child and suggesting helpful resources within the school,
  2. local community mental health centers can provide information about possible parent education programs, child social skill training programs, or local counselors or psychologists who are working with children who have friendship problems, and
  3. local parks and recreation offices can provide information about community social recreational opportunities for children, such as scouting and recreational group options.

Friendships are important to children. The interest you show in your child’s friendships and the support you offer to your child in this important area of development are essential.