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Helping your kids “find their people”

As a parent, one of the most heartbreaking things to hear your child say is “no one likes me.”

You work hard in their formative years to teach your children to socialize, be kind and share so they can make friends during school and create the important relationships that will last into their future.

The truth is, it can be difficult for some children to make friends. Whether they are too shy, too “in your face,” interested in things that others their age generally are not or just seem to be outsiders for reasons unknown, “finding their people” can be an ongoing challenge for some kids.

As a parent, you may feel helpless in this situation because you are not with your children at school or during all of their social interactions, but Chantal Côté, registered psychologist and founder of Pyramid Psychology, says there are ways parents can help their children cultivate healthy relationships with friends.

Importance of friendships

“Peer relationships are an essential part of development. They provide important practice in the area of interpersonal skills, such as how to behave in society, developing social skills, communication skills (and) conflict resolution skills,” says Chantal.

She adds that a child’s friends can help them explore and support their identity formation and expand their areas of interests, perspectives and strengths. 

“Meaningful peer connections expand a child's natural supports, the people who care about them, who they can trust, who have their back, and this can enhance a young person's sense of self and confidence,” Chantal says.

She adds although there is often a draw towards being “popular,” when it comes to friendships, it is not quantity but quality that has a real impact. 

How to help

So how can you aid in making sure your children connect with the people that will help them be the best they can be?

It may be simpler than you think.

“Be curious about your child's interests and strengths. Be curious about their current friends and what draws them to them,” says Chantal.

It can also be important for you to try to get to know your kid’s friend's parents beyond a polite hello.

Modeling social skills and interpersonal skills in all of your adult relationships is also crucial.

“These can be brief interactions such as while at the till of the grocery store… or over time such as youth watching parents interact with their own friends,” says Chantal. 

It is also important to offer opportunities to meet new people with playdates, organized events, extracurricular activities, neighborhood block parties and attending events at places of interest.

Chantal says if you have identified gaps in specific skills that may be hindering your child from making friends, such as trouble with emotional regulation or managing disagreements, consider a class or group that focuses on these areas.

“No one likes me”

How can you respond to your child if they tell you they are having trouble making friends?

First, be glad that they came to you about the problem.

Second, make them likely to do so again by listening to what they have to say.

“Listen and validate their experience – let them know you hear them and want to know what they have to say,” says Chantal. 

“Help them label how they are feeling. Show empathy for what that feels like (e.g. lonely, sad, frustrating, boring, embarrassing, worried) before stepping into rescue or solution mode.”

All too often as a parent, we may be tempted to want to solve the problem and jump ahead. Without the intention to do so, this can leave children feeling misunderstood or dismissed. It is really important to take the time to listen, validate and understand. Perhaps even waiting for a separate conversation to look at possible resolutions. 

At another time, see if they would be willing to brainstorm some ideas to resolve the situation together. This can come in the form of helping your children discover their interests and strengths and then thinking of ways to find others with similar hobbies. Is there a group in school or through a local library that focuses on a certain topic of interest? What about social media groups that bring people with that hobby together?

Bad influences 

How should you handle it if your child has made a friend that you don’t care for?

“When parents are not loving their child's friend choice it can be helpful to know, the more parents express an opinion about a friend, the more attractive it may make them,” says Chantal. 

If you have a concern about a friendship your child or teen has, consider asking your child about what they like about this friend. What draws them to this person? 

When voicing your opinion of the person to your child, try saying something like "I noticed when your friend is around you don't really have much room to voice your opinion" or "sometimes I worry when the two of you are together, that you don't always make the best choices."

Ultimately, the ability to make and keep friends is like many other skills – you have to live it to succeed and there isn’t necessarily a “right way” to go about it.

It is important to let your child know that transitions, changes and losses are all a natural part of friendships so they don’t feel like they are failing when these things occur.

Make sure you provide a safe place where they can feel comfortable to tell you about their relationships (the good and the bad) and don’t forget to really listen to what they have to say and work with them to help fix any problems.

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