When my daughter Emma started third grade, she got off the bus most days with tears in her eyes. Her two closest friends had recently moved away and she was not succeeding in her efforts to become friends with some of the other kids in her class. A fairly quiet and shy child, Emma found herself spending recess alone and her self-confidence plummeted as her few attempts at joining in games were rebuffed.
After conversations with her teacher and with other parents who had struggled with the whole friendship issue, I called the mom of another quiet little girl in Emma’s class and asked if the girls could get together for an hour on a Saturday. As this friendship blossomed, Emma found herself becoming more confident at school and began to open up more with other kids. It wasn’t an easy year, but by taking some positive steps we were able to head off nine months of tears.
After spending a morning at a recent Parent University, I found that many parents are struggling with similar friendship issues. But there are some ways to make things easier, according to three local psychologists who help children deal with social issues.
Start with a greeting.
Some kids may struggle with friendships and getting along with other kids simply because they don’t know the words to use. "It may be as simple as starting with a greeting," says Jennifer O’Donnell, a clinical psychologist in Naperville who works with children on social skills. "Practice the greeting, ‘Hi, my name is … what’s your name?’ "
The importance of body language.
O’Donnell also suggests that parents practice nonverbal skills with children in front of a mirror, such as standing up straight and smiling when you greet someone. "Only 7 percent of our communication is verbal, 55 percent is nonverbal body language and 38 percent is paraverbal or tone—the way we say what we say," she says. "We teach parents to role model these for kids—we encourage eye-to-eye to show you’re listening and to show confidence."
Learn how to listen.
Talk about being a conversation hog—some kids may not realize they’re not giving other kids a chance to participate in a conversation. "Tell kids it’s like a ball hog in a game—conversation should be a two-way interaction," O’Donnell says. Also, work with kids on asking open-ended questions. For instance instead of asking, "Did you win the game yesterday?" they can ask "How was the game yesterday?"
Put principles to practice.
Practice conversation and communication skills with your child while you’re out in the community. If you’re at a restaurant, let your child order the pizza. If you need to find something while shopping, have your child ask the sales clerk where to find it. This discussion can also include practice on not talking too softly or too loudly. Reinforce any positive efforts.
Don’t burst the "bubble."
A big concept for younger kids to understand is the idea of personal space. "I see this a lot and we often have parents with the kids on top of them and we have to encourage some separation to practice good space," says Mary Potts, a psychologist in Naperville. Potts teaches children to think of personal space as someone’s "bubble" and she works with kids to understand how it feels when someone stands too close to them. "Help them understand the size of people’s bubbles."
Stay out of it.
Don’t always race to rescue kids when they’re struggling in their relationships with other children. Brainstorm ideas to solve social problems and to help them develop the skills they need to implement these solutions, O’Donnell says. Parents can also role play different situations and let kids try out ways to handle them.
Live and let live.
Realize that everyone isn’t going to like your child and your child isn’t going to like everyone else. "Kids need to work on their own social situation, most of the time it’s figuring out what they want," says Karen Williamson, a psychologist in Northbrook. "Girls will often seek out that popular group no matter how toxic it is." Sometimes kids find themselves pigeonholed into a particular group at school and may need help from parents to find an afterschool opportunity that lets them meet a new group of kids and reinvent themselves, Williamson says.
Talk about what makes a good friend.
"You need to have discussions about friendship with your child—what makes a good friend, what do you want in a friend? We tend to put up with things because we don’t feel like we have any other options," Williamson says. "We need to ask, when someone criticizes you and puts you down, is that a good friend?" Kids may need help finding new friends if they’re involved in negative relationships.
Allow your middle schooler to be part
of the pack.
"A lot of parents want their kids to be unique, but it almost goes against the junior high mindset," Williamson says. "When we push our kids to go against the grain, we can be setting them up. That may sound like a copout, but you have to know where middle schoolers are at. It’s OK to be part of the pack."
Lead by example.
When you’re talking to other adults, model good social skills. Don’t talk about other adults in front of your kids and don’t model negative interactions—kids pick up on things from seeing your interactions with others, O’Donnell says.