Helping Children with Friendships

My nine-year-old daughter has been generally a happy girl but recently she has seemed to be unhappy going to school. She finally told me she had fallen out with her friend at school. I am not sure exactly what happened but it seems her friend has started hanging out more with another girl in the class and it has become a case of “three’s a crowd”.

She was very upset about it when she spoke to me. I have tried to suggest that she tries to make friends with other children, but to be honest she does find making friends hard and has had only a few friends over the year. The other girl had been to our house a few times and they did seem to get on. She was her main friend in school. I have suggested I might talk to the teacher but she is dead set against this. What should I do?

Friendships are important to childhood and help children feel secure, encourage their independence and teach them the important social skills they will need in adult relationships. However, being able to make and keep good friends is far from easy and many children find it hard and/or go through periods when they fall out with friends. As a parent, it can be tough to witness your child having friendship problems.

Unlike other areas of their life that you can “sort for them”, children have to take the lead in making their own friends and figuring out how to do this. However, there is a lot you can do to help. As a parent you have the important role of being a “good coach” – there to support your daughter to make good friendship decisions and to sort out any problems for herself.

Listen to your daughter’s concerns
It is good that your daughter has confided in you about how she has fallen out with the other girl. Your job is to really listen and encourage her to open up about what happened.

Make sure to acknowledge how she might be feeling. If helpful, you can share an experience from your own childhood when you lost a friend and how you dealt with it.

Empower your daughter to make decisions
Take some time to explore with your daughter what she would like to do about the situation. Frequently, children have ideas about “getting their friend back”.

Depending on the specifics of how they “fell out” there may be some merit in these ideas – for example, it may be appropriate to invite the girl over for a play date or to discuss how she can join the two girls in the class.

However, it may also be the case that the friendship has gone its course and your daughter needs to be supported to come to terms with this and in her own time to “move on” and to develop new friendships in the classroom and elsewhere.

Talking to the teacher
Given that she is nine years old, ideally you should get her co-operation before you raise the subject with her teacher. Explain how you could do it “on the quiet” and that the teacher might help in sorting things out and helping her feel happier in school.

Teachers can do a lot on a subtle level to help children make friends for example, by dividing up children into paired activities with children they might have an affinity for, organising small group projects and doing classroom teaching on friendship and inclusion.

Provide opportunities for friendship
Outside school it is important to provide your daughter with plenty of opportunities to develop friendships.This includes making sure she is involved in one or two extra-curricular activities she enjoys and is good at and where she meets other children.

When children are involved in activities they really enjoy, their anxiety and shyness diminishes and it is easier to make friends.

Cast the net wide and consider lots of new arenas where your daughter can develop friendships whether this is neighbours, children of friends, cousins or other family neighbours. Follow your daughter’s lead and explore who she might be drawn to as a friend.

Organise play dates and one-to-ones
It is also important to support your daughter having play and social visits with other children. These work best when they are one to one, and when you are there in the background as a parent to support.

Suss out with her if there are any particular children she likes in class or in outside activities that she might like to invite over and discuss how she might approach the child about this.

In facilitating these visits, your job as the parent is to help your daughter prepare and to think what activities she might do with the other child, to give the two of them space in the house (maybe by keeping other siblings away), as well as to provide nice snacks as needed.

Support her friendship skills
You say your daughter finds it hard to make friends. It is worth taking time to tune into what specifically she finds difficult so you can help her. Some children find it hard to make the first initiative and to approach a child.

Others find it hard to generally chat with another child and prefer to be doing an activity together. There is lots you can do to help your daughter learn about and practise social skills.

For example, there are lots of good children’s books for her age group that discuss friendship issues and dilemmas that you could read together. In addition, you can help her plan and practise how she might approach social situations that are difficult for her such as what she might say to a child in the classroom she wants to invite to a play date.

The key is to keep the discussion and practice fun and light which takes the pressure off her.

Finally, I recommend an excellent book for parents on helping children find friends called Good Friends are Hard to Find by Fred Frankel.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, 2013. John writes in the Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.