What should you do if your child has trouble making friends ...

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In many ways, the ability to make friends is purely a function of personality. Extroverts, for example, draw their energy from interactions with others. They like to talk and interact and be heard, because extroverts draw their energy from those with whom they interact. On the flip side, you have introverts, who tend to be more quiet and reserved. It’s not that they prefer isolation, but they draw their strength from within and do not rely on others for stimulation the way extroverts do. The good news is that one personality type is not any better or worse than the other. This is especially true for adults, but for children the issue gets a bit murky. Extroverted children tend to be more sociable and therefore tend to have more friends. Introverted children, however, are not as naturally comfortable in social situations, so many times worried parents perceive a problem where in fact there is no problem at all.

Some children are just shy, which is normal and certainly not cause for alarm. The truth of this statement is often lost on worried parents, who have in their minds a vision of what a well-adjusted child should look like in social situations. If a child is introverted, is it the parents’ responsibility to help them make friends? If it is, how do they go about doing that? If it isn’t, what should they be doing instead? The actual answer to these questions has more to do with understanding what a child actually needs in the first place.

Consider the concept of sociability. Like personality or mental illness, sociability exists on a spectrum, where “0” is low functioning autistic and “100” is full blown psychopathic narcissism. One of the defining characteristics of autism is marked impairment in social situations. One of the defining characteristics of narcissism is the belief in a pre-ordained right to be the center of attention. As should be evident, this is not an either-or situation.  Each and every one of us falls somewhere on that spectrum, hopefully somewhere near the middle, something that we might lazily describe as “normal.” But what is normal? More importantly, when should parents start to worry that their child’s behaviors are abnormal?

The answer is: it depends. It depends on the child, their personality and what they want. If a child is an introvert and prefers to spend their time alone making sandcastles, that is not a defect of character or a sign of mental illness – that’s a normal, well-adjusted personality. Some kids play king of the mountain; some kids are content to dig in the sand. Parents often make things worse by trying to fix something that is not broken.

Consider the following: Many years ago, two upper middle class parents took their eleven year old son to see a prominent child psychologist. The parents had tried everything to make their child more sociable. They figured that group lessons at the local country club would be just what the doctor ordered.  Golf lessons, tennis lessons, dance lessons, swimming lessons – the list was exhaustive. To their surprise, their son would come home every day in tears, despite the gobs of money they were spending to make him happy. He was obviously miserable, but they didn’t know why. All the other children seemed to be having so much fun. Why was their boy so different? Exasperated, the boy’s parents brought him to the psychologist and explained their plight.

After considering their story, the psychologist sat down with the boy and looked him in the eye.

 “Do you want to learn how to golf or to dance or to swim?” the psychologist asked.

The boy shook his head no meekly.

“Well, what do you want?” the psychologist questioned.

The boy’s lip began to quiver. “I want to learn how to paint.”

The parents looked at one another with surprise. “What should we do?” the father asked the psychologist, confused.

The psychologist grinned and replied, “I’d start by buying a brush.”

Parents often make the mistake of seeing their child as someone they should be, rather than as someone they actually are. Some kids will be king of the mountain. Some kids will play in the sand. And others will draw that scene for others to enjoy.  It all comes down to personal choice, which is a construct of personality. We can no more change this than we can the color of our skin.

If parents want to help their child make friends, they must first recognize that any attempt to do so must first start in the home. Parents cannot waltz into a school and appropriate friends, but they can teach their child the concepts of self-worth and value. Parents cannot prevent children from making “bad” friends, but they can instill in them a sense of morality. And parents cannot protect their children from the inevitable loss of childhood friends, but they can teach them self-confidence and esteem. If a child is comfortable within their own skin, there is no social situation they cannot handle. Our lives are the culmination of all the lessons we have learned, and the best strategy for parents is to ensure that our children feel empowered, confident and secure. This is the real way to help our children make friends. It also happens to be the best way to promote success in most every other aspect of their lives.

However, with all of that being said, sometimes therapy is the appropriate remedy and evaluations may be necessary. You have a legal right to request that your school district complete an evaluation or, in certain situations, allow you the opportunity to obtain an independent evaluation that the district funds.

Note, nothing in this article or on this website is to be considered medical or legal advice.

To learn more about your legal rights when it comes to obtaining social / emotional supports for your child, give us a call at 215-650-7563.

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