What should you do when your child comes home from school and says, “Nobody likes me!”? This remark is common from seven-year-olds, who tend to be very self-critical (e.g., Wood, 1997), but kids of any age can sometimes feel friendless.
Your first instinct might be to reassure: “Of course people like you! What about Jeffrey? He likes you! What about Sarah? She likes you!” Unfortunately, your child will probably respond by arguing harder that he or she is friendless.
Or maybe your first reaction is frustration. “Well, if you weren’t so bossy…” You’ve warned your child a thousand times that off-putting behavior will drive away friends. Why won’t your child just listen? Unfortunately, lecture number 1001 is no more likely to help than lecture 1000, and criticism, when your child is feeling down, is likely to evoke tears and/or anger.
Or maybe you just feel helpless. It’s heartbreaking to see your child feeling rejected, but you know you can’t make friends for your child!
Fortunately, there are things you can do, as a parent, to help a child who is feeling friendless.
Reach first for empathy
We adults tend to want to fix problems, but sometimes just listening to our kids and acknowledging their feelings is enough. You could say, “It sounds like you had a rough day” or “You seem upset about something.”
If your child is open to telling you what happened, you can say something like, “You felt hurt when she said that” or “How frustrating!” to show you understand.
You may also want to ask, “Do you need a hug?” When a child is feeling rejected by classmates, some extra loving from mom or dad can be comforting.
Try not to overreact
It’s hard to see our kids hurting, but keep in mind that children’s feelings can change rapidly. The kid your child claims to hate today could be a favorite friend next week. The disagreement that had your child in tears at bedtime tonight could vanish tomorrow.
Kids, by definition, lack perspective. They just haven’t lived long enough to be able to understand events in a broader context! You certainly don’t want to dismiss your child’s genuine distress, but an incident that feels like the end of the world to your child...most likely isn’t.
If a classmate was mean to your child, you may be tempted to step in like an avenging angel by contacting the other parent or speaking directly to that child. Don’t. It’s understandable that you’d feel protective of your child but you don’t want the conflict to expand to the parents. Unless your child is in danger, or it’s a case of very serious bullying, it’s usually best to give kids a chance to work out disagreements on their own.
Also, if you become visibly upset about your child’s friendship problems, it makes those problems bigger. If you’re upset, too, the problem must be even more dire than your child thought! Strong emotional reactions from you could make your child reluctant to tell you about future problems. Or, conversely, a big response from you might make your child focus on and report every tiny little slight.
Get more information
If the friendship problem is repeated or on-going, you might need to get more information about what’s going on. Your child’s account may not be complete. It’s hard for kids to see their own role in social difficulties. For instance, your child might say that a classmate kicked his chair and forget to mention that that classmate had first politely asked him several times to move over.
Talking to your child’s teacher is often helpful. The teacher sees your child “in action” with peers every day and could offer important insight about how your child acts around others, how classmates respond to your child, and what’s typical behavior for your child’s age.
You can also learn more by observing your child interacting with peers. Keep an eye out on the playground, arrange a playdate, or volunteer in your child’s classroom so you can see firsthand how your child gets along with other kids.
Coach your child
Once you understand what’s happening, you may be able to guide your child toward getting along better with peers. This guidance works best before your child enters a social situation rather than after your child has behaved in unfriendly ways.
For example, you may be able to help your child role play friendly greetings or calm responses to teasing. You could help your child recognize signs that others are getting annoyed or figure out better ways to handle a frustrating situation.
You may also need to offer suggestions about which kids seem open to friendship. Not everyone is going to like your child. That’s human nature. But trying to pursue a friendship with someone who isn’t interested is a recipe for misery. Sometimes kids fixate on wanting to be friends with the most popular kid in the class and overlook peers who have more in common with them. Also, sometimes old friendships fade, and your child needs to look for a new buddy.
Create opportunities for friendships to grow
Although you can’t make friends for you child, you can help set the stage for friendships to grow. Kids make friends by doing things together. Involving your child in some fun after-school activities could help your child meet other kids with similar interests. Arranging one-on-one playdates can be a way to deepen casual friendships. Inviting another family over for a family game night could also open the door to friendship for your child.
Get professional help, if needed
Sometimes friendship problems require professional help. If your child is being harassed or threatened at school, you must enlist the help of the teacher and principal in keeping your child safe. If your child's social difficulties continue for weeks or months, you may want to consult a mental health professional or try a social skills group, where your child can practice getting along with others in a safe, constructive environment.
© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD.
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Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, author, and speaker, based in Princeton, NJ (lic. # 35SI00425400). Her newest co-authored book is Growing Friendships: A Kid’s Guide to Making and Keeping Friends (video preview). She is also author or co-author of: Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids (audio/video series, 70% off at www.TheGreatCourses.com/Kids), Smart Parenting for Smart Kids, The Unwritten Rules of Friendship, and What About Me? 12 Ways To Get Your Parents' Attention Without Hitting Your Sister. Learn more at www.EileenKennedyMoore.com and www.DrFriendtastic.com.
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Wood, C. (1997). Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14 : A Resource for Parents and Teachers (Expanded). Northeast Foundation for Children.