Learning how to make friends at school
What parent wouldn’t feel pain at hearing the words “no one wanted to play with me today”?
Armed with our own dim yet painful memories of ostracism, it can seem that social rejection is a fate worse than death.
Our fears are not ill-founded. Research from the 1980s and 90s suggests poorer outcomes for children who grew up without friends – they were more likely to drop out of school, become lonely adults, suffer from mental health problems and have drug problems in adolescence.
Learning how to make friends
Aren’t friendships supposed to happen naturally? Yes, but research on how children make friends suggests that the way we parent has a big effect. Children whose parents used harsh disciplinary measures have been shown to demonstrate more hostility and aggression themselves. Children who have a strong sense of security and attachment to their parents are more likely to form positive and connected friendships than those who don’t.
While we tend to view the way children make friends as being different to that of adults, in reality it isn’t. Research tells us that the most popular kids are empathic, sharing and helpful. They have good verbal skills and are able to take other perspectives besides their own. Most importantly, they know how to control emotions, particularly aggression and selfish impulses. Perhaps that’s not surprising, but it demonstrate the challenges for kids and the negotiation, skill and hard work required to survive in the playground.
Not just a popularity contest
Surprisingly, having a good family role model, love, security, self-worth and a pleasant personality isn’t the whole picture. One of the unexpected findings to come out of the research is that being popular with peers isn’t necessarily enough.
More important than popularity and social acceptance is another trait – initiative. A study published in 1993 uncovered a paradox: some popular kids did not have any close friends, while many who were not well-liked did. The researchers concluded that taking initiative was a crucial yet possibly under-rated aspect of friendship. Initiative might involve inviting another child to play hopscotch or come over for a play date.
Other less considered skills that affect the success of friendships include choosing the right candidate (eg, someone who is reliable and has common interests), learning how to exert influence over others in a way that isn’t pushy, aggressive or undemocratic, and handling the inevitable disappointments that come with human relationships.
Can a child be ‘taught’ to make friends?
Aparently so! Researchers at the University of California founded the Children’s Friendship Program in an effort to demystify the process.
Homework forms a fundamental part of the program, with training provided to parents on how to help their children with their friendship issues. Children are trained in new skills, which they are required to practice. These include learning how to make a good impression and find common interests, politely join a group of kids already playing, handle rejection, teasing and bullying, be a good sport and a gracious host on a play date, respect adult supervisors and acquire good conversation skills.
What can you do now?
In the work these researchers have done on developing friendship, it emerged that one of the greatest impediments is time. Pointing the finger at society’s lack of prioritisation for friendship time, they say that homework, electronic media, busy parents and too many scheduled activities like ballet and soccer, cut in on the intimate one-on-one time he believes is crucial to making long-term friends.
But it doesn’t stop there. As well as teaching basic social etiquette and just hanging out, the other significant arm of the program is networking and parental guidance. It’s recommended that parents free up time for play dates, curb activities like TV and video games that interfere with friendship, and avoid toys and games that can lead to too much competitiveness, aggression or someone getting hurt (such as toys with projectiles).
Which kids find it hardest to make friends?
Children with difficulties in making friends typically belong to three broad groups: rejected kids (inconsiderate of others), neglected kids (shy, quiet, unnoticed) and those with behavioural disorders like ADHD. Despite what their behaviour might suggest, these children want to have friends, but lack an understanding of how to go about getting them.
The aggressive child
These children are disliked by others. They use aggression as a way to deal with conflict. Children who fight frequently misunderstand social cues, while bullies enjoy the reaction it gets from others.
Generally, parents learn about their child’s behaviour through a complaint. In these situations parents should:
- Listen to what the other parent has to say – work with the other parent instead of against them.
- Listen to what your child has to say about the incident and get specific information, but help them to consider non-aggressive ways to deal with conflict. This might include walking away, telling a teacher or deflating a conflict with humour or wit.
- Give immediate but brief penalties for aggression.
- If your child bullies others, remove any objects associated with the bullying – such as their mobile phone – and enforce strong rules.
Children who hold back
These children, often labeled passive, quiet, shy, anxious or withdrawn, are often overlooked because their behaviour isn’t disruptive. In reality, these children can be in quite a lot of pain and loneliness. While adults often write off the problems of children who hold back, developmental psychologists believe that the socially withdrawn child (like the aggressive child) is lacking in the social competence needed for their best wellbeing.
Typically these children are reluctant to try new things, worry too much and don’t take initiative. In these situations, parents should:
- Start with an easy activity, then make a pact that the child will try it out.
- Afterwards, evaluate the activity with the child and praise them for their efforts.
- If they enjoyed it, do it again. If not, then praise them for their effort and start again with a new activity.
The hyperactive child
Children with ADHD often exhibit behaviours that make them undesirable to others as playmates. These children typically have problems focusing on and completing tasks, following instructions or paying attention. They frequently have problems sitting still, listening and playing quietly, and may talk excessively and interrupt others.
For parents whose child has this set of problems, it’s suggested that they:
- Choose activities that suit their child’s attention span. For example, play dates are best limited to a little less than what a child can handle.
- Supervise play dates and choose playmates carefully. The best playmate for a child with ADHD is not another child with the same problem, but a child with exceptional social skills and patience.
Although training our children in the skills of friendship is tough work, it’s worth the journey. Companionship is one of the most fundamental and joyous, yet challenging aspects of being human. It will potentially also provide them with skills that will echo on into their future workplaces and romantic relationships.
This article was written by Linda Moon for Kidspot.com.au and has been adapted for Kidspot.co.nz