By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of The Survival Guide for Making and Being Friends
The return to school is just around the corner. Many kids, despite the sadness that comes as summer ends, look forward to seeing friends they missed during the break, and perhaps even to making new friends. For other kids, however, returning to school presents challenges. What if they don’t know anyone in their new classes? Perhaps your child is changing schools, which is even harder for socially anxious kids. Fortunately, there are many ways you can help your children as they prepare to return to school.
The best time to make new friends, or rekindle old friendships, is in the first couple weeks of school. That’s because not everyone knows each other, so students are more open to meeting new classmates. Saying something as simple as, “Hi, Sophia—how was your summer?” can break the ice. For making new friends, you can encourage your child to introduce him or herself to the kids sitting close by in class or in the cafeteria. A simple “Hi, I’m Aadi—what’s your name?” is enough to get started.
One of the most important things you can do for your child is to build his or her self-confidence. This is required for your child to feel comfortable approaching others. Kids can give themselves a pep talk before going to school. Saying to themselves “I can do this!” or “I can be a good friend” helps kids muster the courage to take a chance and start a conversation.
Think of yourself as your child’s coach or consultant. You can’t do all the work for your child, because this will not teach the skills needed to survive the social world. However, kids do need gentle guidance, a lot of encouragement, praise when they succeed, and understanding when things do not work out the way they wanted. Many kids also need instruction in specific social skills.
At the same time, be careful not to bombard your child with a bunch of suggestions on how to make friends. Instead, start the conversation by asking him or her some questions: How do you feel about going back to school? Are you hoping to make some new friends this year? Is there anyone you knew last year that you’d like to become better friends with?
Before offering suggestions, first ask what he or she thinks might work. Follow up with these questions to get your child thinking about other strategies: Have you watched how other kids in school make friends? Do you think that might give you some good ideas? What can you say to a boy or girl you haven’t met yet? How might you introduce yourself? What can you say to kids at lunch to let them know you are interested in being friends?
Encourage your child to say hello to people on a regular basis. Saying “How are you?” or “How’s it going?” or “What’s up?” shows that you are friendly and interested in talking.
Some kids have trouble knowing what to talk about. Giving suggestions for conversation topics can be helpful. Here are a few ideas for starting a conversation. Kids can talk about
- the weather
- something fun they did recently
- special events at school, such as dances or parties
- sporting events, such as a football game they saw recently places they’ve visited
- things they plan on doing or places they plan on going soon
- favorite games, foods, books, TV shows, sports
One of the most helpful things parents can do for socially anxious kids is to role-play social situations with them. Pretend you are a new kid in class and ask your child to try to make friends with you. Praise whatever positive skills you observe your child using. Then you can play the part of your child and demonstrate methods you think might work. Using a video camera can allow your child to see how his or her behavior might come across to others. Role-playing gives your child safe opportunities to practice social skills.
Helping your child develop empathy is another important thing you can do. Kids who help other kids when they are feeling upset are more successful in making friends. Whenever possible, encourage your child to think about how others may be feeling. Then explore what he or she can do to be helpful. You can do this within the family or by discussing characters in books or movies as examples.
Children who have trouble finding other kids to make friends with might be encouraged to get involved in extracurricular or community activities. Sports are a great way to make friends, as are scouts, youth groups, religious groups, martial arts classes, dance, and volunteering. If possible, talk to the coach or activity leader ahead of time. Let him or her know of your child’s difficulty making friends and see if he or she is receptive to helping.
Remember, making and being friends is a social skill that takes practice. While some kids may be naturals, everyone can benefit from practice and improve their skills.
Dr. James J. Crist is a psychologist specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. He is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults. He has authored several books, including Mad: How to Deal with Your Anger and Get Respect and What to Do When You’re Cranky & Blue. His new book, The Survival Guide for Making and Being Friends will be out in October. Visit his website at jamesjcrist.com.
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