Making new peer friendships is a vital skill that is important for children and young people’s self-esteem and sense of well-being in the world.
Some children and young people will find making friends relatively easy and may look forward to the prospect of developing new friendships, however others will have a harder time fitting in.
Crucially, the need for love and belonging is one of the most basic needs that we have, so when a young person struggles to find their place within their peer group this can be an extremely painful experience, affecting their confidence and self-esteem which in turn may leave them feeling disconnected and vulnerable.
There are some practical things to remember and things you can do to help if your child is finding it hard to fit in and make friends:
Remember that some children and young people are more introverted than others and they might actually prefer one-to-one friendships, rather than socializing within a big group. So, if your child is generally happy and content but only has one or two friends, then this is okay.
Let your child or young person know that you are there for them if they need to chat. They really do need your support to help them build and maintain positive friendships and having your support will help them to feel less alone if they are struggling.
When your child does talk with you, try to be accepting of their thoughts and feelings so they feel understood and supported. Sometimes if we are too quick to offer solutions without properly listening, the child is left with a feeling of not being heard. Try to make sure you are empathizing with their feelings before you consider with them what (if any) action to take.
It is worth considering that you might be comparing your child with you, or even with their siblings who may be more gregarious. If this is the case, be mindful to allow for differences: some children may feel more comfortable with a wide group of friends while others are happy with a few closer friends.
If you child is younger and seems to be finding it difficult to ‘fit in’, it might be worth setting up some playdates. If they seem to be worried about this, perhaps you could arrange the first playdate to be at your house, so they feel more confident. Before the other child arrives, talk about what they could do together and perhaps suggest that your child picks out a few toys or activities, so they have some ideas ready.
Playdates are easier to organize when your child is young but more difficult with adolescents who are starting to become more independent in managing their friendships. If your child is older, perhaps consider the following: what is your teen’s character and how do they like to socialize? Think with your teen about playing to their strengths, so that if they are more comfortable when doing a physical activity, you could suggest that they kick a football about at the park or go for a bike ride with some chosen friends. If they love a good chat, maybe encourage them to suggest going for lunch or a walk with someone from school.
For younger children you might want to consider enrolling them in a club or activity where they might find the more structured environment an easier forum in which to make friends. For your older child, you could gently encourage them to use their hobbies or interests as a way of connecting with others who have similar interests for example joining a sports club, going to a skateboarding park or even starting a new hobby like karate or scouts. Perhaps also consider face to face and online options.
If you are concerned that your child is anxious about not fitting-in, It might be worth speaking with the class teacher (if your child is younger). They may be able to set things up at school to help them build friendships, for example setting up a buddy system or establishing a friendship bench in the playground.
Remember that making friends can take time and some children and young people will take longer than others to find their ‘tribe’ but this is completely usual.