Everyone likes to see their children playing happily. But if you find that your child is failing to make friends, or worse, being rejected, it’s heartbreaking. When our children are too shy, competitive or self-contained to make friends, we tend to feel like failures ourselves.
Child psychologist and mum of 3 Dr Pat Spungin agrees that having a child who struggles socially can be very worrying. “All children want friends, and it’s important they make friends,” she says.
“So if they don’t, we panic. But social skills, like any other skill, can be learnt, and you’re the perfect person to teach them.”
Her tips for raising a child who’s sociable are:
Be positive about your child. If you constantly refer to your child as shy or miserable, she’s more likely to take on that persona. Instead, say encouraging things about your child when she’s in earshot.
Build your child’s confidence. Don’t force a quiet child to sing in public or tease a lively little one about her inability to sit still. Make her feel good about herself, so she won’t feel the need to impress others by putting on an act. Secure children are more sociable.
Lead by example. Say hello to your child and ask her to say hello to others, but don’t get angry if she won’t. Talk to her, compliment her and ask questions about her day, then listen attentively to what she says. Let them have fun.
Practise social skills. Playgroups and organised activities are great for children to practise their social skills.
Here are 3 social problems you might face with your child – and how to overcome them.
1. When your child frightens other children
Some kids can be extremely boisterous, and very confident, which can actually put other children off being friends with them.
Dr Pat suggests clamping down firmly on unacceptable expressions of frustration, such as hitting, pushing and snatching.
She adds that it’s useful to explain, even to a young child, that the things which make him feel good – such as showing off his toys – can make other children feel sad.
“One-on-one playdates at home are an excellent way to help children make friendships,’ she adds. “You can show your child good social behaviour and practise sharing.
“Always be specific when he’s behaved well, saying, ‘I really liked the way you shared those biscuits with your friend,’ or, ‘You were so kind taking turns on the bike. That’s how we make friends.’”
2. When your child is a loner
Some children simply prefer to sit quietly with a book than play or mix with their peers. What can you do in this situation?
“Some children seem to be very self-contained,” Dr Pat explains. “It’s not that they’re shy – they’re often quite confident – but they don’t enjoy large groups and prefer quiet activities.
“It’s perfectly normal, but if your child is never encouraged to practise being social, it will be harder for him to learn social skills.
“Have friends round, join groups and when you have children over to play, make sure there are toys… which they can share.
“At home, talk to him and encourage him to respond. Praise his efforts to join in.”
3. When your child is shy
What happens if you have a child who’d rather sit on your knee at parties than join in with the other kids?
“Research shows that babies are born with different temperaments, and some children are just more sociable than others,” says Dr Pat.
“It can be very scary for little ones to meet new people. But it’s in a child’s interest to encourage her to enjoy being with other people.
“Teach her introductory skills, such as saying hello and telling people her name.
“Nurseries can be great for bringing such children out of their shells, as are regular organised activities for toddlers, such as music or dance groups.
“You stay with them, but tell them in advance they can’t sit on your lap and you’d like them to join in as much as they can.
“Also, invite children to your home where your little one will feel more confident. Be understanding and don’t push her into things.
“Instead, gently encourage her to be more independent, but don’t expect her to become the life and soul of the party.”