Do you have a student in your school or classroom that struggles to connect with his peers? Is your own child frequently on the receiving end of cruelty at the hands of classmates or “friends?” We know that young people who lack social support are particularly vulnerable to being bullied. What can we do then, as professionals and as parents, to teach our kids the skills they need to make positive friendships and maintain nurturing peer relationships? This article present five strategies for adults to bear in mind and pass on to kids as the school year begins.
1. First & Foremost: It’s Not a Character Flaw
For many school-aged kids, the ability to make new friends comes as naturally as breathing. For others, however, connecting with peers is a source of stress each and every day. Many adults assume that there must be something wrong with kids who struggle socially. This deficit-model can be a damaging mindset that puts extra pressure on a young person who is already beyond his coping skills.
Rather than think of friendship struggles as a character flaw, regard the ability to make and maintain friendships on a par with any other skill that a young person needs to master. Just as you would offer individualized instruction and run though extra practice problems with a child who lagged behind in math, commit to spending extra time offering a socially-awkward child extra practice with friendship building skills such as starting a conversation, engaging in back and forth dialogue, finding common interests—and even ending unhealthy friendships (more on this advanced skill below.)
Bottom line: Kids who struggle socially benefit from adult guidance in developing the skills they need to reach out to their peers and establish friendships.
2. Start with Strengths
Think about a child you know who has difficulty making friends. Make a list of his or her strengths. For example, is he particularly interested in a certain subject—animals or science or technology? Does she enjoy a particular activity—soccer or swimming or the arts?
While it’s easy to hyper-focus on all of the things a young person is doing wrong in social relationships, when we start from a problem-perspective, we have very little to build upon. Instead, focus on the things that the young person is already doing well and make a plan for how to address his social challenges by building on his inherent strengths.
Case in point: Jesse was a socially-isolated high school freshman who excelled at anything musical. He played both the trumpet and the piano and was a gifted singer. While he admittedly did not mingle with the athletic classmates that topped his school’s social hierarchy, an astute school counselor encouraged him to compose a song for his school’s Homecoming football game. His score was chosen to be played at halftime, along with much fanfare. Though Jesse was never carried on the shoulders of his winning classmates (that stuff only happens on TV), he did gain recognition for his talents and secured the admiration of several football players who became “big brothers” of sorts to Jesse, lending him some of their social clout and protecting him from the ridicule he had been receiving prior to his composition.
3. Prioritize the Challenges
Next, consider the most pressing challenges a young person has in connecting with others. Does he struggle with small talk? Is it hard for her to take another’s point of view? Is sharing especially difficult? Usually, there are specific social behaviors that an adult can identify as most-challenging to a child’s ability to connect with peers. What are the top two or three social skills that your child would benefit from learning? How can you integrate teaching or modeling these skills into your everyday interactions with the young person?
4. Cast a Wide Net
Sometimes social skill deficits have nothing to do with why a particular child is on the receiving end of cruelty or social isolation. In Odd Girl Out (2011), author Rachel Simmons points out that bullying is very often context-specific and has more to do with the dynamics of a particular peer group than with any personal characteristics of the targeted child. For example, a young person who finds herself consistently victimized in her middle school classroom may find herself valued and accepted by her field hockey teammates—or vice versa. Too often, schools are particularly unfriendly territory for kids to form solid friendships because the competition for “rank” on a school social ladder can be so intense.
One of the simplest, most powerful things that an adult can do for a child who is caught in tough in-school peer dynamics is to provide plentiful out-of-school opportunities for kids to form positive relationships with similar-aged peers. Help your child cast a wide net, seeking out friendships in the neighborhood, on a team, through a club, by volunteering, with a youth group, or as a participant in the Arts.
5. Teach Kids to Know What to Look for in a Friend
Along with teaching kids where to look for positive friendships, adults offer kids a lifelong skill when they teach them what positive friendships should feel like. In their younger years, kids tend to be wholly intuitive in their friendship choices, making decisions on who to play with based on fundamentals such as who likes the same games and toys, and who is kind to them. As kids age, however, social dynamics become more complicated and motivations for seeking friendships change. It is not uncommon for upper elementary and middle school students to choose friendships based on social status alone.
It’s a disheartening reality of the tween and teen years that many kids lose touch with the childhood instincts that gained them their first real friendships. For many, it takes years to re-gain the self-confidence to choose friends based on the qualities of the person rather than the person’s social status. Adults can play a role, however, in influencing kids’ choices when it comes to friendships and limiting the toxicity of their friendships.
With the start of a new school year, try this simple exercise with a group of students or young people.
• Tell the kids that you want to play a brainstorming game about friendship.
• Allow two minutes for each person to write down as many positive qualities that they look for in a friend as possible.
• If this activity is being done with just one child at a time, ask him to read his list aloud and talk briefly about why each quality is important. You may also challenge your child to rank the top five or top ten qualities and talk about the rankings.
• If more than one child is participating in the activity, ask each one to take turns reading their list to the group. Instruct all of the kids to circle any of the items on their list that are read aloud by someone else. Friendship qualities that appear on three or more kids’ lists can be starred. Continue until everyone has had a chance to read their list aloud. Encourage the kids to talk about the friendship qualities that they listed in common and why they each consider these qualities to be so important.
• Next, challenge the kids to think about things they would want to avoid in a friend.
• For example, if a friend was always nice “to their face” but talked about them behind their backs, would they want to hold on to that person as a friend? Why or why not?
• This time, when the lists are completed, encourage the kids to call out their answers while you make a list on a large sheet of paper for all to see. Even if you are only doing this exercise with one child at a time, seeing the list posted on paper makes a lasting impression.
• Once the two lists are done, draw some comparisons between them. Emphasize that kids have the power to pursue friends that possess positive qualities and to avoid close relationships with persons who exhibit many of the qualities on the “avoid” list. Be careful to specify that kids should not behave unkindly toward anyone, but rather that when choosing friends, they should aim for getting to know kids with positive, desirable qualities.
• An important follow-up question is to challenge kids to think about why people sometimes make friends with the “wrong” people. Allow for discussion and encourage the kids to talk about things like peer pressure, fitting in, and intimidation.
It can be very helpful for kids to hear that their peers have the same anxieties and insecurities about making and keeping friends as they do. While having friends occupies much of children’s time, rarely do they dedicate moments to considering making good friend choices. This exercise gives kids a fun and memorable opportunity to think about what they want—and want to avoid—in a friend.
Signe Whitson is a school counselor, national educator on Bullying Prevention, and author of four books, including 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents and Schools and Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Cope with Bullying. For more strategies to help young people develop positive friendships and cope with bullying in schools, visit www.signewhitson.com