With songs, sitcoms, dramas, and movies galore celebrating friendship, it's clear society places a high premium on friends. As a result, parents often grow concerned when their child just doesn't seem to fit in -- or worse -- fits in with the wrong crowd.
But parents shouldn't fret just because their child is not the most popular kid in the class or the life of the party, experts say.
"My rule of thumb when working with kids is that I don't get too concerned about kids who have a friend or a couple of friends, but there are some kids who, for whatever reason, have no friends, and that can be problematic," explains Jonathan Poghyly, PhD, a child psychologist at Children's Memorial Hospital, in Chicago. "If a child has at least one friend, there is a frame of reference and a forum in which to practice friendship."
Parents may start to notice that their child is starting to develop a pattern in regard to friends and friendship starting at the age of 3 or 4, says Charles Sophy, a Beverly Hills, Calif.-based psychiatrist. "If you are hearing from teachers, caregivers, or coaches that your child is a loner on the playground, doesn't share well, gets rejected when he or she tries to join a group and/or is aggressive, it may be something to look into," he says.
According to Sophy, the first step is to look at your child's situation from several angles. "Is he sleeping? Is he eating well enough? Is he getting his work done at school? Is he being stimulated in an age-appropriate manner? Does he exercise and get out socially?"
The answers to these questions can be telling and may help point parents in the right direction, he explains. For example, lack of sleep may result in irritability and lack of energy for socialization.
"You also have to look at yourself as a parent," he says. "Do you model good behavior? Do you have friends? Do you enjoy friends and go out? Do you have group play dates where moms and dads hang out while the kids play?" These types of behavior will encourage and motivate your children to value friends and friendships.
Is Anxiety to Blame?
Another possible reason that your child has difficulty forming friendships may be anxiety, Sophy suggests.
"If the child has anxiety, you can work around it and they can do better," he says. For example, arrive early at birthday parties, since anxious kids often do better when they get there first as opposed to having to work themselves into a group, he says.
Parents should not be too pushy with their children regarding friends, Poghyly says. "It's a bone of contention between parents and kids when parents say 'why don't you try to make new friends' and the kid may have a pull-back response," he says. Instead, try to support your child in pursuing sports or other activities and clubs where he or she can meet people and make friends, he advises.
In addition, "if parents observe the way their children interact with peers, they can provide feedback in a supportive way," Poghyly says. For example, you might say "it looks like so-and-so was angry when she left. What happened? Is there another way you could have handled that situation?'"
Sometimes the Wrong Crowd Is Worse Than No Crowd at All
Oftentimes parents grow concerned when their children fall into the wrong crowd or begin spending time with a child they just don't approve of.
But "the more you verbalize or show that you don't like their friends, the more they will like them," Sophy warns. "Parents really need to ask themselves what it is that they don't like about a particular friend or group of friends," he says.
"You don't want to become too confrontational so the child becomes defensive about friendships and choices," Poghyly agrees. But "if there is already a precedent where the parents are comfortable telling kids what values are accepted, then this is a smooth process as kids have pretty much adopted their parents' value system," he says.
You can also limit the number of outings you allow your child to participate in that involve kids you don't approve of, he says, and invite them over to your house instead. This way, "parents can open up a dialogue about what they were observing such as, 'Did you notice how much he was bragging?,' and use actual observation and examples to open up a dialogue about why they don't like this friend or group of friends."
Published February 2007.