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We dread our child telling us that ‘no-one likes me’ or ‘no-one wants to play with me’. Yet many children struggle with friendships. Speech and language therapist Alex Kelly outlines what parents can do to help.

The first step is to try to understand the problem. If you know where your child is struggling then you will know where to start.

1. Motivation:  is your child motivated to have friends?  

Most children really want to have someone to play with, to have someone to talk to. If this is the case, then motivation is not the issue for your child.

However, some children appear to be not motivated by friends and say they prefer to play on their own. If your child says this, consider whether this is owing to past experience, as some children develop protective ways of coping without friendships. In this case, lots of careful handling and reassurance is required and you will need the school to support you with helping your child to experience small amounts of success and develop self-esteem.

However, some children are truly not interested in having friends and it is important to consider this, even if you cannot understand it yourself.

I have worked with children who have communicated clearly to me, either verbally or through their behaviour, that they find being around other children stressful and they prefer to play on their own.

We must listen to them and not force them into friendships that they do not want.

Instead, help them to cope with being around other people by helping them to understand what people are doing and why. For example, explain it in a social story (see our feature on how to do these) so that they know what to expect from others.

Teach them strategies to be accepted by their peers so that life at school, and after school, is easier. For example, try a 'circle of friends' approach in school so that their peers understand and accept them for who they are. Or write some social rules to help them understand the complex world of relationships and socially acceptable behaviour. One autistic lady said to me, ‘You will never teach me to be sociable, but please help me to be socially appropriate and accepted’.     

2. Self-esteem:  does your child lack confidence?

Self-esteem is important in developing friendships as we need to believe in our own value as a friend.  A child’s self-esteem will help them at every stage of developing a friendship: saying hello, asking someone to play, or inviting them to a sleepover.

Do they like themselves? Do they struggle with their confidence? This will affect their ability to make friends and this is where you need to start work.

Help them to develop their self-identity so that they see themselves accurately and positively.

Help them to recognise their strengths and qualities. Children with low self-esteem often also struggle with their emotions, so help them to talk about their feelings and to develop ways to handle them.

Developing a child’s self-esteem is best done both at school and home, as children need to learn this in all aspects of their life.

3. Opportunity: does your child have the right opportunities to make friends?  

Opportunity is a factor in making friends as we need to go out to meet people face-to-face, and as adults, we sometimes need to force ourselves to go to certain places to meet like-minded people. Children are more dependent on their parents to create these opportunities.

School should give them the ideal opportunity, but if school is not going well for your child, it may be worth considering clubs where they may meet potential friends. I worked with a family where the mum created a Saturday play session for her child and invited a few potential friends from her daughter’s class. 

4. Social skills: does your child have difficulties interacting with others?

Finally, you need to consider your child’s social skills. We need to interact with others appropriately, and a lack of social skills may be a barrier to making friends. Does your child struggle to know what to say?  Do they talk about things that are not interesting to other people? Do they know how to act appropriately around other children, or do they irritate their classmates by not listening or getting too close to them?

Work out where they are struggling with social skills, and then choose one skill to work on. Try to choose a simple one first so that your child experiences success.

Teaching your child a body language skill such as appropriate distance or touch is far easier than teaching them the rules for being relevant in a conversation. 

It is also essential to get the school on board too.

Finally, if your child has problems in all four areas, deal with the issues in the order described.

Alex Kelly is managing director of Alex Kelly Ltd.  She is author of the Talkabout books and resources for developing social skills and self-esteem

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