How can I make friends? What a great question. Unfortunately this is not the question that most kids ask when they are struggling socially. The thoughts that run through the average child’s mind are more along the lines of; “Why doesn’t anybody like me?” “What is wrong with me?” “Why do I feel this way?” In a perfect world, our children would know that most of their emotional struggles in school come from problematic socialization, an inability to navigate the social world around them. Instead, they most often turn inward and believe that they themselves lack something that makes them likeable or loveable. This leads to much of the depression and anxiety that we see in the preadolescent and adolescent communities today. The key is equipping our kids early in life to have the tools and skills to maneuver in this emotionally delicate environment.
As parents we need to be aware of many things such as our children’s personalities, whether or not they have tendencies to be shy or even obnoxious in social settings, if they think they have anything to offer another in a relationship, do they know how to start a conversation, and are they willing to take risks in a social setting. All of this takes attention and time with our children but is necessary in our ability to help them socially. With this information we have a starting point to give them good basics in the art of making friends. When a child comes in my office and our topic is making friends, here are some of the main skills we attempt to master.
The first rule in making friends is “not” to be nice; it is to “go where people are.” It doesn’t matter how nice a child is if they are never exposed to social scenarios. We have to first identify if a child has the opportunity to be around other kids on a regular basis. Yes, school for most of them is obvious, but often kids play sports, take piano lessons, go to scouts, etc. All of these environments can be valuable in developing social skills and all are good resources. If your child is uninvolved, get them in something social.
The second rule is to “Notify your face.” This means in simple terms, lift your head, make eye contact and smile. A child needs to be good at the non-verbal. It is amazing how many children walk through the halls of school looking at their shoes. A young girl told me once, “If I don’t look up then I can’t see them, so I think they can’t see me.” A child’s whole perspective can change when they lift their head and smile, and someone smiles back. Children are rarely aware of their facial expressions and many need encouragement to put on pleasant faces. Encourage your kids to smile and laugh and make eye contact with you when talking. The more this happens at home the more they show happy, pleasant expressions other places.
Rule number three is to “Acknowledge others verbally.” This for some is very difficult because as one young boy put it, “To do that, something actually has to come out of my body, I mean my mouth.” He was right on both accounts, this is where a child takes the step to share something more substantial with the outside world and that can be scary. The assignment I often give is for a child to say “hey” or “hello” when someone makes eye contact with them in the hall. After they have tried this a few times I have them say hello to at least one peer in each class and to use that child’s name. Eventually one of those individuals will say hello to your child first. Encourage your child to say hello to friends when they see them at ball games, the pool or out in public. This is also when we focus on giving compliments, saying nice things and being verbally supportive of others. This initiation of verbal contact is crucial in the socialization process. The earlier in life that a child learns this, the more able they will be to build relationships with less anxiety.
Rule four is to “Ask questions about the other person.” Kids often report that they have no idea what to talk about or how to start a conversation. Instead of trying to come up with something “cool” sounding or some interesting topic, the goal is to pay attention to the other person. When a child knows that another is interested in them, they want to be around that person more. The best way to demonstrate this is to ask them questions about themselves. When your child is effective in this, many kids will enjoy their company and eventually will begin to ask your child questions in return. This process is the beginning of friendships.
Last but not least, let your children see you being social. As parents we are the number one source of how to deal with the world that our children have. A huge part of that information is what our children see us do. We need to say hello, engage others in conversation, introduce our children to our friends and in general demonstrate both the tools and desire for relationships. We can equip our children to be socially effective!By Keith McCurdy [email protected]