How Parents Can Help Children with Friendship Issues
Does your child have difficulty with friendships? Here’s a look at possible causes and what you can do about it.
An age by age guide for parents:
Babies | Toddlers | Preschool Age | School Age | The Upper Grades
What Parents Can Do
By Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D.
"Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm …" That’s the opening line of Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s classic novel. I like to paraphrase that idea in regard to children’s social anxieties: Popularity is not important, but children seldom realize this when caught by its power and its lure. Consider the following example:
On the third morning of school vacation last summer, Lily dropped off her 7-year-old daughter, Tess, at day camp. After each of the first two days, Tess had come home miserable, telling her mother how lonely she was and how mean three particular girls were to her.
Naturally, Lily was worried about Tess, so she watched the scene from her car as Tess eagerly ran off to where three girls were sitting, huddled closely together. Tess sat down near them, but not too near, and tried to join the conversation.
Lily saw the other girls give Tess a brief glance and then return to their intense threesome. Tess tried a few more times to get their attention and then seemed to give up. She walked dejectedly up the steps and sat down by herself. Lily tried to wave goodbye to her daughter as cheerfully as she could, but Tess was too busy looking wistfully toward the three girls to see her mother.
This was new territory for Lily, because her older daughter never came home complaining about being lonely. Not because she always had a friend, but because she usually preferred to be alone. Lily had given up on trying to push her older daughter into being more social, because she seemed happy. Tess, however, always wanted to be in the thick of things, with lots of friends around. If one of her friends teased her or left her out, Tess was inconsolable.
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That afternoon, Lily expected to hear another sad story from Tess about being excluded by those three girls. Instead, Tess bounded into the car, excitedly telling her mom about her brand new friend, Katie.
And the next morning, Tess walked right past those three girls after leaving her mom’s car. Her face lit up, she started waving wildly, and Lily watched as Tess and, apparently, her new friend Katie ran toward one another. The two girls then sat down together, huddled in a private conversation, creating their own little world. Once again, Tess didn’t see her mom wave goodbye, but this time it was because she was so happily involved with her new friend.
In our book Mom They’re Teasing Me, my co-authors and I discussed the crucial difference between being a loner and being lonely. Tess’ older sister was a loner. By temperament and preference, she liked being on her own. She was able to enjoy other people, but she didn’t need to be in a best-friendship or even in a group to be happy the way that Tess did. We also addressed the difference between children who experience normal social pain, such as being teased or left out once in awhile, and children who are at risk for serious psychological damage because of ongoing rejection or bullying.
Tess felt rejection by those three girls, and it hurt, but it didn’t destroy her. Soon enough, she was able to make the all-important discovery that friendship is more important than popularity. Having a friend protected her from the sting of not being in the most popular group.
But some children face one episode of exclusion after another. They are the ones who are at risk for serious problems – depression, aggression, loneliness, anxiety, even suicide or homicide. A child facing normal social pain might be miserable because he’s not part of the "in-crowd," but the child at risk is not a part of any crowd and doesn’t have any friends. It’s important to be accepted, and even more important to have a friend, but it’s not so important to be "popular."
Some children prefer to be alone much of the time, and those children are developing a very important life skill: to be able to entertain themselves and to be self-sufficient. But others shrug their shoulders and say they like sitting alone with their computer or books or dolls, when they’d actually rather be more social and don’t know how. Even worse, some children have experienced rejection or exclusion every time they’ve tried to be social, so they’ve given up.
These children aren’t loners out of preference. They are lonely because of social awkwardness or social exclusion. Sometimes it is so painful that they cry themselves to sleep night after night – and they often keep their loneliness hidden, so that parents may not notice.
Loner vs. Lonely
When children say they prefer being alone, they may be saying that they enjoy being on their own. Or they may be saying that being alone is preferable to being rejected and mistreated by their peers.
How do you tell the difference between a happy loner and a child who is miserable because he or she can’t mix well but wants to? It helps to remember what your child was like as a baby, when he or she began to reveal a temperament. Some are slow to warm up to new people or new situations, while others are outgoing and sociable from the moment they can smile. Some babies even begin to show preferences for certain other babies as soon as they are able to crawl! Other babies are content to watch their peers from a distance.
Babies – Babies are generally not upset by rejection or unpopularity. If another baby turns away from them or steals their toy, they don’t experience this as a social rejection, just as a frustration or irritation. At this age, the most important thing we can do to foster our children’s future friendships is to have a safe, strong, secure attachment with them. I call this "filling the child’s cup." When a child’s cup is kept full, refilled consistently whenever it is emptied by hunger, tiredness, loneliness or being hurt, then the attachment is a secure one.
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Toddlers – As infants become toddlers, they need more and more opportunities to interact with other kids. Once again, you will see a clear difference between kids who love to be engaged with their peers, and those who prefer to be alone or to play quietly nearby another child. You also begin to see the first signs of rejection and exclusion. Most often, if a toddler is disliked, it is because he or she is too aggressive or bossy, or so shy that she avoids participating with the other children.
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Preschool Age – Around age 3 or 4, teasing enters the picture, and children use teasing (and pushing and shoving, as well) to determine who is "up" and who is "down" in the child hierarchy. Charisma becomes a factor also. One child might say, "Let’s play tag," and everyone will join in. But when another child says, "Let’s play with the blocks," no one comes over to play. Later, these power experiments can get ugly: A child may start a whisper campaign, "Nobody play with Angie," and the popularity struggles begin.
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School Age – By the school years, the peer group becomes more significant. Conflicts can occur between friendship and popularity. A boy and girl who are best friends in their neighborhood might be teased for being friends at school, where gender differences suddenly become very important to kids. Or two best friends might split up their friendship because one of them wants to be part of a higher-status clique. As the demands for social participation increase, a child who was perfectly happy being a loner can begin to feel lonely, because he or she is missing out on the important social scene at school. These shy ones – as well as loners, socially awkward kids and anyone labeled as "different" – can also be the targets of teasing and bullying. But it’s important to determine what a child means when she complains about being "unpopular." If it means that the child, like Tess, is desperate to be accepted by the coolest kids, then she needs some help seeing that true friendship is more important than popularity. But if it means that a child is disliked, and rejected in her attempts to join in or make friends, then the child needs help.
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The Upper Grades – In middle school, which one young person described to me as "the pinnacle of social cruelty," children can be incredibly mean – using exclusion, teasing and bullying as weapons. But in high school, things get better; popularity becomes less important. As one high school student said, "We still have the popular kids, but they aren’t our leaders anymore." In high school, and beyond, there are many ways to find your place in the world; you don’t have to try to force yourself into the narrow confines of the "in-group."
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When listening to your children’s feelings about loneliness, rejection, exclusion and popularity, try to steer the conversation away from the details of the social pain and into areas that are not discussed nearly enough – compassion, inclusion, kindness and courage.
Here are three questions that I like to ask children, before I jump in with any advice or solutions:
1. What did you try?
2. How did it work?
3. What might you do differently next time?
I often ask groups of students what parents or teachers should do to help with social problems like teasing and bullying. They all shout, "Nothing! Stay out of it! You’ll only make things worse!"
However, if I ask the question a little differently, and invite them to think about anything an adult has ever done to help them thorough a difficult social situation, they will often say, "Someone listened to me."
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Best Friends, Worst Enemies, by Michael Thompson, Catherine O’Neill Grace and Lawrence Cohen, Ballantine Books, 2001. Explores children’s social relationships and how to help kids deal with peer problems.
Mom, They’re Teasing Me, Michael Thompson , Lawrence J. Cohen Ph.D., Catherine O'Neill Grace. The range of difficulties children face in social situations, from bullying and name-calling to rejection and socialization is the focus of this primer for parents, with specific tips on how to deal with these issues.