QUESTION: My 10-year-old daughter is in fourth class. She has always been shy, particularly when she meets new people, but recently this seems to have got a lot worse. In her all-girls school, one girl she was particularly friendly with has joined another group of friends in the class and my daughter feels a little lost.
She comes home saying no one likes her and tells me how unhappy she is, which breaks my heart. Unknown to her I have stayed and watched her in the school yard and I can see how she stands by herself and waits for someone to talk to her.
She seems almost frozen with anxiety. I have spoken to the teacher about it and she says that our daughter is doing very well in the classroom academically and works well with the other girls in activities and so on. She is aware that informal times, such as yard time, are hard for her. I wonder how best to help her. Should I get her some counselling?
ANSWER: Lots of children are shy or reserved, especially in new social situations, and this can lead to challenges forming and keeping friendships. This is especially the case at your daughter’s age when children are forming friendship groups and the issues such as which group you belong to and who is your best friend become particularly acute.
There are studies to show that problems such as classroom cliques, exclusion and bullying can peak at the age of about 10, especially in girls’ schools. In my own clinical work, I have come across many children your daughter’s age who feel excluded and are deeply unhappy about their lack of friends at school.
The problems can be particularly severe for socially reserved children such as your daughter who can be more dependent on a smaller group of friends and who are less socially assertive when it comes to making new ones.
The good news, however, is that there is a lot you can do to help her.
Encourage her to talk about what is happening
Though it is hard to hear what she says, it is great that she is talking to you about what is happening for her in school, and telling you how she feels. Being able to share and vent their feelings is a great relief to most children.
In responding, the key is not to overreact with your own worries or to rush to solutions too quickly. First, be a good listener and encourage her to open up and talk more.
Ask her for details, making sure to appreciate her feelings. Then you can begin to problem-solve with her, and discuss what solutions might help. Start by asking her what she would like to be different at school and what potential solutions she thinks there might be.
Support her in making friends and coach her in social skills
With socially reserved children, it helps a lot to teach them how to be more proactive in reaching out to friends. Instead of waiting for children to approach her, brainstorm with your daughter ways she could approach and start conversations with other children.
Perhaps you could identify a child who could be a potential friend in the yard and then discuss particulars of what your daughter might say or how she might join in an activity with that child.
If your daughter is open to the idea, you could even roleplay the social situation with her and rehearse what she might say and do. If you can reduce the seriousness of the situation and make this “coaching” light, and even fun, so much the better.
You can also help by setting up play dates with potential friends in your home so your daughter can have time to get to know another child. This can build their connection and make things easier in school.
Remember, a little improvement in this area can make a big difference, Even if your daughter can become friends with just one other child, it could greatly increase her happiness.
Support your daughter in attending extracurricular activities she enjoys, especially those where she might meet some of the children in her class. In a different context, where she is doing something she enjoys and that she is good at, it is much easier to make friends and it is also a boost to her self-esteem.
Work with your daughter’s teacher
It can also be helpful to discuss solutions with your daughter’s teacher. Many teachers can subtly set up classroom activities and pairings with other children that help individuals to build friendships.
The teacher may also be able to identify a potential friend in the classroom you have not considered before. You could invite her on a play date or could identify activities that your daughter could join, both in and out of school, that could help her make friends.
Getting counselling for your daughter
Counselling may be of benefit to your daughter, though only if she perceives this positively and makes an early connection with the counsellor: there is a danger that she might see counselling as a sign something is wrong with her and/or it could reinforce her anxiety.
My own preference is in the first instance to help parents be “good counsellors” themselves to their children and support them by learning to listen and coach their children to solve problems. If you make even a small bit of progress, this would benefit your relationship with your daughter greatly.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, January 2015. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.