20 May 2024

Why does my child struggle to make friends?

As a parent, it can be upsetting and concerning to see your child struggling to make or keep friends. No one wants their child to …

As a parent, it can be upsetting and concerning to see your child struggling to make or keep friends. No one wants their child to feel isolated or lonely. Our guide explores some of the reasons why your child might struggle with friendships, when to consider an Autism or ADHD assessment, as well as some ways you can help your child develop their friendship skills.

1.    Lack of social and communication skills

Just like academic skills, children need to develop social skills to navigate relationships and make friends. These social skills don’t always come naturally, and some children might need a little extra help in order to build friendships.

Non Verbal Communication

If your child struggles to read social cues it can have an impact on their relationships with their peers. This could mean that it might take your child a bit longer to understand more about nonverbal communication and emotional recognition. However, it’s also a trait associated with autism.

Typically, a child who struggles to read social cues will be oblivious or have a limited understanding of nonverbal communication like body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. They might also struggle to read and respond to other people’s emotions, not noticing if another child is angry or upset. Therefore, failing to respond in the expected way.

Verbal Communication

Children with social skill deficits might have trouble in conversation with others. They might not be equipped with the tools they need to start conversations with other children which can make them feel isolated or lonely.

Both children with ADHD and Autism can find verbal communication difficult, particularly with sustaining conversations. Children with autism have very narrow interests and they can unintentionally dominate conversations based on their special interests, and appear disinterested in topics unrelated to their interests, which can upset other children. Whereas children with ADHD are often impulsive in conversations, interrupting conversations or finding themselves unable to listen when others are talking. Both children with ADHD and Autism are likely to lack the skills needed to keep a conversation going by asking relevant questions and actively listening.

Children with communication disorders like speech and language delays, stutters and speech or hearing impairments might find verbal communication more of a challenge which can make them feel worried or anxious about verbal communication with other children.

2.    Shyness and anxiety

Just like adults, children can be introverted or extroverted. If your child is an introvert, they might be content with a smaller social circle, or they might need help in building their confidence when interacting with other children.

Shyness

Shyness is a personality trait and shy children tend to worry more during social situations. Being shy does not necessarily mean that your child has autism or ADHD, they might need longer to warm up to new people and get used to social situations.

Social Anxiety

When a child has intense worry around social situations it could be due to Social anxiety. Children with social anxiety can have an intense fear of rejection which can result in your child avoiding social situations altogether, meaning they miss out on the opportunity to make friends. In some cases, social anxiety manifests in physical symptoms. For example, your child might feel sick at the thought of having to read in class.

3.    Response to differences

Unfortunately, some children may struggle to make friends with other children as a response to differences such as interests, appearance, cultural, or economic background.

This might be because some children might struggle to initially find a common ground with children who have different interests, backgrounds or upbringing to them. Children who are not exposed to differences or not taught to embrace differences might feel fear or respond negatively to anything outside of their perceived norm, making it difficult for children who are different to fit in.

4.    Parental influence

The way children respond to differences is largely influenced by the way they see their peers and parents behave, but parental influence can also impact your child’s confidence and independence.

Overprotective parenting

Overprotective parenting can limit your child’s ability to develop their social skills and confidence. If they are always supervised when interacting with other children they will struggle to learn social skills by themselves. Overprotective parenting fosters dependency, meaning your child will struggle to develop their social skills autonomously if they do not have the opportunity to be independent.

Positive social behaviour

Children learn their social skills from their peers, parents and other role models. By displaying positive social behaviours, children can learn empathy, respectfulness and communication strategies they can employ when interacting with other children.

How to help your child make friends

There are various strategies you can adopt to give the support your child needs to make friends and develop social skills. We’ll also discuss some of the other pathways to support that might help your child with relationships.

 

Help your child learn social skills

You should help your child develop their social skills in the same way you would help them with any other aspect of their development. Explain how to participate in active listening so that they can show interest when they are in conversations with other children. You should also help your child learn how to articulate their feelings with confidence. Some of the ways you can help your child develop these skills is through roleplay.

Roleplay is also a good method for teaching your child how to problem solve and resolve conflict as well as develop empathy so that they can see situations from other people’s point of view.

You should also encourage your child to be polite and demonstrate good manners with positive reinforcements when they say “please” and “thank you”. Encourage kindness and discourage any exclusionary behaviour. Teach your child to respect and celebrate differences in others.

Make social interactions less intimidating

Children who are shy or anxious about socialising might find certain social situations like break times at school intimidating. They might avoid social situations which can make developing friendships more difficult. Encouraging inclusive games and activities in diverse environments.

Organising one-on-one play with another child that your child is familiar with might be less intimidating than building a relationship on the playground. It might also help to plan activities that both children enjoy so that they have a shared interest.

Group activities based on your child’s interests might also provide social opportunities where they can meet other children who have similar interests. Whether that be sports, music or other extracurricular activities.

Offer emotional support

Maintain an open dialogue between you and your child, and encourage your child to discuss their social experiences without fear of judgement. Allow your child to problem solve independently but offer support if they need it so they feel confident navigating social challenges.

You should always praise your child when they make an effort to join in social situations, especially if it’s something that they typically avoid. Gradually expose your child to social situations they find challenging, starting with less intimidating situations first.

When to seek professional help

Even with support, some children might need additional help to navigate friendships. If your child suffers from anxiety it might be worth considering talking to a therapist. If your child still struggles to follow social cues and displays other traits associated with autism, you should consider a child autism assessment so that your child can access the extra support that they need. If you find that your child’s impulsive behaviour impacts their friendships and they have some of the other traits associated with ADHD, then it might be worth considering a Child ADHD assessment.

If you suspect your child is being bullied or excluded due to their differences, it’s important to speak to your child’s school to work with their teachers and caregivers to ensure they are supported and safeguarded.

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