Friendship is equally important for children and adolescents. It might have a different meaning at a given developmental stage, but the importance of having supportive, funny, and caring friends can’t be denied.
I would rather walk with a friend in the dark than alone in the light.–Helen Keller
Younger kids need buddies to share their toys, games, snacks, and imagination. Adolescents, on the other hand, have more serious challenges, like getting good grades, being selected to a team, or avoiding bullying. They need friends to encourage and support them. All children need good friends to be happy and feel worthy of social approval.
Friendship is important
Friendship, social skills, and the need for social affiliation have been studied by experts from ancient times. The history of such research can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome.
Aristotle coined the term “social animal” to shed light on the need for living with fellow human beings. Maslow also highlighted the value of friendship by placing the need for love and belongingness (friendship, intimacy, trust, and acceptance) right after physiological and safety needs in his hierarchy of needs.
In our early years, friends help us develop and practice social, communication, and emotional skills. Having close friendships is seen as having a positive impact on the mental wellbeing of children. Research indicates that children with such friendships tend to be happier and more satisfied.
Not every child can be a social butterfly
It’s important to understand that every child is different, and not all can become social butterflies.
We see children who become the center of attention at a social gathering and have many friends. However, there are also children who tend to be on the introverted side. They may not be chatterboxes, but it doesn’t prevent them from making friends.
If your child has few close friends and his social and communication skills are age-appropriate, then you shouldn’t worry. The number of friends isn’t an indicator of good social skills or deep friendships.
Long-lasting bonds and caring relationships with friends are more valuable than short-lived and shallow friendships.
Difficulty in making friends
Some children experience difficulty in making and keeping friends. These struggles can be of different types, such as:
- Child struggles with making friends in the first place.
- Child makes friends but can’t keep them for long.
- Child frequently changes friends and group affiliations.
Difficulties in making friends can have a long-term impact on the mental health of a child. Children with no friends in childhood are 2.98 times more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety and 2.38 times more likely to display aggression, inattention, and hyperactivity.
Signs of lacking friends at school
Mothers usually pick up signs from general conversations with their children and observing their behaviors. Sometimes teachers and siblings can also tell if a child doesn’t have friends at school.
Common signs that your child lacks friends include:
- not talking about friends
- not getting excited about going to school
- getting overwhelmed at gatherings or avoiding them
- changing friends frequently
- not being invited to playdates
- having a negative self-image
Why children can’t make friends
If you notice that your kid has no friends, you definitely have cause for concern. I always suggest to parents that such a situation requires both curiosity (trying to discover the underlying reasons) and execution (taking the necessary steps to help your child).
There can be many underlying factors contributing to your child’s difficulty in making friends. The most common ones include:
- Having speech and communication challenges: It can be difficult for children to make friends if their peers find it hard to understand them.
- Behavioral problems, hyperactivity, and inattention: Inattention and hyperactivity can make it tough to engage in a reciprocal play activity.
- Difficulty with social skills, for example: Empathy, following nonverbal cues, taking turns, appreciating others, apologizing, controlling mood swings, etc.
- Having special needs: Research findings indicate that children with developmental delays or special needs initially struggle with forging friendships and need parental help in this.
- Shyness and introversion: Shy and introverted children can’t easily open up to others, so making friends can be difficult for them.
- Parental depression and other mental health issues: Research indicates that parental depression, a tendency for over-controlling behavior, and insufficient affection can negatively impact children’s ability to make and retain friendships.
Practical tips for facilitating friendships
1. Model good social skills
Parents serve as the most important role models for their children. If you want yours to develop the necessary social skills and build close friendships, model good social behavior.
Let them observe you enjoying chitchat with your friends, invite your friends over to your house, go on outings with them, and share cherished memories of your childhood friends.
2. Help them develop social skills
Developing and maintaining a friendship needs a certain set of skills. You have to help your child learn to:
- Greet others in a warm and welcoming manner
- Initiate and sustain conversations
- Find and discuss topics of mutual interest
- Take turns in a game
- Show empathy and compassion for others
- Understand and care about the needs of others
- Compromise and learn to control emotions
- Show gratitude and say sorry when needed
You can use videos, social stories, and role-playing activities to start instilling these skills in your child. Gradually, you can take your kid to parks, playgrounds, and family gatherings to help them practice these skills in real-life situations.
3. Work on communication skills
Children might struggle with making friends if they have speech problems or weak communication skills. Assistance from a professional speech and language therapist can be very helpful in this regard.
You can also use the following simple strategies to help your child overcome communication challenges:
- Talk to your child.
- Ask your child to explain his/her feelings.
- Encourage them to give their opinion.
- Read stories together.
- Ask them to explain picture stories.
- Participate in role play activities with your children.
- Help them in reading body language and facial expressions.
4. Facilitate friendship
If your child is shy at initiating a friendship or approaching a group of peers, you might have to facilitate the process. You can arrange different activities where your child gets to make friends in a familiar and safe environment.
You can invite classmates, neighbors, and cousins on playdates or sleepovers. Activities where cooperation is encouraged help children with reaching out to peers without much hesitation or fear of disapproval.
5. Consider professional help
You should seek professional support if your child shows symptoms of any neurodevelopmental disorder, for example, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), ASD (autism spectrum disorder), or SPD (sensory processing disorder).
Guidance and support from experts will help your child with improving their social skills and also their ability to make friends.
6. Collaborate with the school
As a parent, you can partner with the teacher to keep an eye on how your child is doing socially in school.
Students with special needs also struggle with making friends. With the help of teachers, different activities can be organized to create awareness and acceptance about human diversity.
Qualities of a good friend
Many formal instruments have been developed to identify the qualities of a good friend. The list of these characteristics can serve as a reference when you are working on developing the desired social skills in your child.
The qualities of a good friend I have listed below come from different checklists. I hope it helps you identify areas where you can support your children in further improving their social skills.
A good friend:
- Is funny and light-hearted
- Is exciting company
- Cracks jokes and makes others laugh
- Provides information when required
- Gives opinion about things when asked
- Helps friends in need
- Keeps secrets
- Knows when a friend is upset
- Stays with friends in difficult times
- Is reliable
- Defends friends in their absence
- Doesn’t let arguments affect the friendship
- Makes friends feel valued
- Appreciates friends
- Shows empathy
- Shows gratitude and apologizes when necessary
If you want your children to be good friends, be a best friend to them. By following your example, they will become someone that people long to have as a friend.