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My child is struggling with friendships...how do I help them?

Navigating social relationships is vital to success in life, and parents can influence their children's success in developing healthy friendships. The skills developed as a child can benefit them in various relationships across their lifespan. Understanding how to support your child through friendship issues is essential, striking the right balance between involvement and autonomy. 





The Fine Line of Parental Involvement


Conflicts and difficulties in friendships are expected when growing up but often are a source of distress. As parents, it can be very stressful when your child is struggling with their relationships with peers. It's natural to want to jump in and fix everything; however, at times, "helping" can hinder your child's ability to navigate social dynamics independently, a vital skill for their future. A 2022 study found evidence that suggests overprotective parenting may harm the child's mental health, increasing symptoms of anxiety and depression that may have the opposite effect on a youth's social interactions.


On the other hand, research supports that parents who are too uninvolved in their children's relationships may struggle to manage their feelings, develop healthy emotional coping skills, and experience challenges in social relationships. There is no "one-size-fits-all" approach as a parent, but here are some strategies that can help you support your child:


Listen and Validate: Start by listening to your child's concerns without immediately offering solutions. Validating their feelings lets them know feeling upset or confused is okay.

Guided Problem-Solving: Encourage your child to think of ways they might handle the situation, offering suggestions only when necessary. This approach helps build their problem-solving skills.

Role-Playing: Practicing conversations or responses can help your child feel more confident in handling similar situations in the future.

Get Involved: If the issues persist or escalate, it might be necessary to involve teachers or school counsellors, especially if it's affecting your child's well-being or academic performance.


Friendship Issues vs Bullying


It is crucial to differentiate between everyday friendship problems and bullying. Minor disagreements, feelings of jealousy, or periods of distance are common in most friendships. These difficulties are usually resolved with time and communication. Bullying that occurs under the guise of friendship can be challenging to see. Unlike the more overt forms of bullying, which are physical or verbal, friend bullying involves social manipulation, such as excluding someone from a group, spreading rumors, or manipulating friendships. Friend bullying can be particularly hurtful because it exploits the trust inherent in friendships, leading to feelings of betrayal, loneliness, and confusion. It involves an imbalance of power between the two people and can result in self-esteem issues, difficulty trusting others, and symptoms of anxiety or depression.


Recognizing friend bullying requires attentive observation and open communication, as children might only sometimes understand what is happening or hesitate to report it. Addressing this issue involves fostering an environment where empathy, respect, and kindness are valued above all, teaching children the importance of healthy relationships, and equipping them with the skills to navigate interpersonal conflicts constructively.


When Difficulties in Building Relationships Indicate More


When children consistently face challenges in forming or maintaining friendships, it may signal deeper underlying issues beyond the surface-level social struggles. Neurodiversity, encompassing conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and other emotional challenges like anxiety, can significantly impact a child's ability to engage with peers in expected social ways. Forming meaningful connections for these children is not impossible, but children who face these challenges may require more support to navigate social landscapes successfully.


Signs of Underlying Issues


Parents can play a crucial role in identifying the early signs that their child is experiencing in social relationships stemming from one of these emotional or neurodivergent factors.


Key indicators include:


Persistent Social Challenges: If a child consistently struggles to grasp social norms, keep up with conversations, or misinterprets non-verbal cues, it could be a sign of neurodiversity. A child on the autism spectrum might not understand sarcasm or might miss the social cues that indicate when it's someone else's turn to talk.

Emotional Regulation Issues: Children facing these issues might exhibit overly intense emotional responses to minor social feedback or situations. An offhand comment from a peer might trigger a disproportionate response or a slight change in plans could lead to significant distress.

Isolation: Some children may demonstrate a preference for solitude, not out of choice but stemming from social anxiety or feeling misunderstood is another red flag. Children with these feelings might withdraw from social interactions because they find them confusing, overwhelming, or unrewarding.





How Parents Can Help


Understanding the impact of neurodivergence or other symptoms that may present in interpersonal relationships is the first step to supporting your child. This insight can help parents adopt several strategies:


Social Skills Training


For some children, especially those on the autism spectrum or with ADHD, explicit social skills training can be beneficial. Building social skills through practice at home can be effective, offering a safe and predictable environment.


Here are some strategies:


Practice Greetings and Conversations: Incorporate the practice of greetings into daily routines, demonstrating warm and open communication. Engage in simple, back-and-forth conversations with your child, using questions like, "How was your day?" This models good listening skills and encourages your child to express themselves and inquire about others, laying the foundation for fundamental social interactions.

Adapt Behaviour to Different Settings: Help your child understand that different environments may require different behaviors. For instance, explain how a lively and louder demeanor might be suitable for outdoor play, but more subdued behavior is required in places like libraries. These social norms are apparent to adults, but all children must learn these cues. Intentionally talking through this is especially helpful for a child struggling with social interactions, as it helps them to better acknowledge these differences, enhancing their adaptability.

Encourage Flexible and Patient Play: Model interactive play for your child, emphasizing patience and flexibility. Whether it's parallel play, where they play alongside peers with a common interest but without direct interaction, or more structured activities like puzzles or team sports, play offers invaluable lessons. These activities can teach children about cooperation, understanding different perspectives, and working towards a common goal.

Develop an Understanding of Social Cues: Since non-verbal communication can often be challenging for neurodivergent children to interpret, take time to explore and explain these cues. You can do this by observing and discussing characters' expressions and body language in books or on TV, asking questions like, "What do you think they're feeling?" This practice can enhance your child's ability to read and respond to subtle signals in social interactions, making connecting with others easier. These skills aid in their immediate social success and contribute to their long-term emotional well-being.


Seeking Professional Support


Therapists and pediatricians trained in neurodiversity can offer assessments and strategies tailored to your child's unique needs. Support from professionals can also be empowering for your child. It can validate their experiences, and offer them tools to navigate their social world more effectively. For parents, professional guidance can demystify their child's social struggles and equip them with practical ways to support their child's social development.


Dealing with friendship issues can be a sensitive topic for parents. It involves creating a supportive environment, teaching children how to resolve conflicts, and knowing when to intervene. Remember, every challenge presents an opportunity for growth for you and your child.


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