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.
Psychologist and mum of three 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. 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.”
Here are three social problems and how three families helped their child overcome them…
When your child frightens other children
When Sam first went to nursery at 3, his mum, Alexa, 35, thought he’d sail through. “Sam was loud, boisterous and very confident, so I thought he’d soon have loads of friends,” she recalls. “But when I went to pick him up one day, his teacher took me aside to tell me that he wasn’t popular, I was absolutely devastated. I just wanted to cry.”
When Anna watched Sam with his classmates, she could see there was a problem. “He’d run up to a child, yelling, and they’d visibly shrink away. To get attention he’d show off, saying, “I’ve got that toy,” but in fact underneath, his confidence was crumbling. He even started hitting other children.”
“Sam was just trying to connect with people and was getting it wrong by coming on too strong. He thinks boasting about things he can do and owns will make him appear more attractive. Of course, he’s wrong, but plenty of adults make these mistakes.”
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, ‘Sam, 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.’”
Alexa agrees that these things work. “Sam liked a little boy called James, so I invited him round for tea. I explained to Sam that he should say nice things, such as, ‘I like your T-shirt,’ or ‘You’ve got great toys,’ and not show off if he wanted James to be his friend. I’d also make sure he wasn’t too boisterous.
“By the time Sam was 4, a regular group of friends was coming round. As he found acceptance at nursery and then at school, his confidence came back and he didn’t feel the need to hit, show off or come on too strong. He’s nearly 6 now and a popular little boy.”
When your child is a loner
“My little boy, Frank, was always happy with his own company,” says his mum, Zoe, 37. “When he was 3, he’d sit quietly with a book while other children rampaged around him. At home he’d often be in his own little world, and at mum-and-toddler groups he’d only play on the fringes. People would say what a good and easy little boy he was, but I was concerned about him.”
“Some children seem to be very self-contained,” Pat Spungin 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 such as Lego or dolls, which they can share. At home, talk to him and encourage him to respond. Praise his efforts to join in.”
Sometimes introverted children blossom as they grow up. “I made an effort to help Frank meet other children at toddler groups and invited his classmates home when he started school,” Zoe says.
“I also encouraged him if he had an interest he could share with other children, such as collecting Dr Who figures and stickers. But growing up helped more than anything. He just seemed to grow into himself, relaxed a bit and became sociable.
“Imagine how happy I was that he kept being invited to friends’ houses and was really popular. To me, it just shows that even if your child isn’t sociable early on, you shouldn’t assume that’s his whole nature and that he won’t change. Kids can really surprise you!”
When your child is shy
Whenever Holly 4, went to parties, she insisted on sitting on her mum’s lap. Mum Bella, 35, says, “I’d feel so frustrated. All the other children would be having a great time, and Holly would refuse to budge. She was horrified by the idea of going to new places, would cry if I tried to leave her anywhere and was so shy she didn’t have any friends. I felt so embarrassed, as if people thought I’d made her clingy by spoiling her.”
“Research shows that babies are born with different temperaments, and some children are just more sociable than others. 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.”
Holly is now 6 and far less shy. Her mum, Zoe, says, “At parties I told her quite firmly she could always come and find me, or even stand near me, but I didn’t let her sit on my lap the whole time. Gradually she joined in more. I also took her to a small informal dance class, and she got to know the girls there. She’s still on the shy side but has a great network of friends at school and dancing, and we’re both much happier.”
How to raise a sociable child
Psychologist Pat Spungin has these helpful tips for parents:
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.