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Beating loneliness and making friends

Three children playing with water
Credit: iStock.com/globalmoments

Speaker, author and academic Dr Michael Nagel examines the importance of friendship and how it lays the groundwork for other lifelong skills.

“The only way to have a friend is to be one.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

We all want our children to have friends. Being socially successful is not only one of the biggest sources of fun in a child’s life, it is also critical to a child’s development.  

Years of research coupled with the mental health issues that have arisen due to isolation during the pandemic, reminds us of the immense importance of social relationships. 

Friendships lay the groundwork for lifelong skills

For children, friendships lay the groundwork for lifelong skills like listening to others, solving problems and self-expression and are an important source of confidence. As children grow older, their friendships start playing an even bigger role in their emotional and personal lives and overall development. 

Worryingly, when children struggle with friendships it can impact on all levels of emotional functioning including mood and confidence. 

Lonely children often feel rejected, invisible or that there is something is wrong with them, but there are things that can be done to help those who battle with loneliness and making friends.

Children can spend a lot of time alone, but it does not mean they are lonely and time alone is actually healthy. However, when time alone is coupled with sadness then something might be amiss.

The best way to know if your child is lonely is when they appear unhappy or complain that they don’t have any friends. Sometimes articulating feelings is not easy for a young child so your first job, then, is to watch your child’s behaviour.

If you suspect that loneliness is an issue then a good starting point is to chat about times when you have been lonely and see if that might open up a conversation. 

You might begin by giving an example from your own life and then labelling that as ‘feeling lonely’.  Another strategy might be to ask your child what they’d like to do if they could do anything and see if being with others surfaces.

The key here is to be a good listener and act as an emotion detective, all the while probing instead of interrogating or trying to solve the problem.

Parents often want to jump to problem solving whenever a child is having an issue. Being empathetic, showing you care and later offering ideas in the form of strategies is a better approach than immediate intervention. 

This can start by working with your child on a plan for engaging with, or making new, friends. That plan could include practising conversations and social skills with one another

This can be done with any age child and offers a safe and supportive environment to hone a social-emotional skill set that will improve with age. Remember that making friendships and fostering positive relationships is a learning experience that requires support and modelling. 

Learning how to say hello and introduce oneself and how to pay attention and respond to another can evolve into talking about likes and dislikes or any other conversation starters.

If your child needs more practise, then phone calls and video chats are also helpful.  

Another positive step for helping your child make friends is to build confidence via exposure to other potential friendship groups. 

Play groups and extra-curricular activities are excellent environments for children to connect with other children. Ensuring you are enlisting activities that are of interest to your child is important.

If they have tried sports and not shown much interest and enthusiasm then getting involved in something they genuinely find exciting will not only help to make new friends but likely improve their sense of self-worth, self-esteem and confidence.

How to help your child form friendships

Another avenue for helping your child form friendships is through hosting social activities at your home.  Identifying activities that encourage cooperation, not competition, are best for forming new friends and getting along.  If children are struggling socially then it is better to steer away from competition. 

Cooperative games and activities help to build positive peer relationships while offering foundations for compromising and negotiating shared challenges and goals. 

Here too, role playing prior to engagement can prove helpful. There is much evidence to suggest that guidance and instruction through role playing that asks children to come up with answers to hypothetical social clashes can be useful.  When clashes do occur, you can help your child think of solutions for future reference and use that event as a learning opportunity via role playing.

Two other important skills to help your child build relationships include teaching them how to say sorry and make amends and how to be understanding when others make mistakes.

Blaming others and decrying when something is fair or not is part and parcel of having an immature mind. 

If you suspect that loneliness is an issue then a good starting point is to chat about times when you have been lonely and see if that might open up a conversation.
Dr Michael Nagel

Developing empathy, self-reflection and emotional regulation

A child’s brain has a lot to learn and will take time to fully develop its capacity for empathy, self-reflection and emotional regulation. 

Children need to be shown how to acknowledge when they have made a mistake and express remorse when others do. Interestingly, children are very forgiving when a peer actively apologises even if they don’t fully understand what it might mean to be remorseful. 

When a child inadvertently does something that upsets other children and says sorry in an attempt to maintain a positive social climate, those who were hurt or upset are more likely to react positively as well.  Of course, the opposite is true, and as such saying sorry becomes an important tool for children to maintain friendships.

And finally, while being actively involved in helping counteract a child’s loneliness and/or forge new relationships, it is important for parents to monitor their child’s social life, but not intervene too much or try to control it.

This is a bit of a balancing act given a parent’s nature to protect and curtail any measure of adversity. However, adversity is also important in helping to learn how to maintain relationships and by association avoid loneliness. 

Supervising children’s play, helping them to find opportunities to meet and socialise with peers, welcoming those peers when they come to play and having conversations about what your child did in their free time are all positive ways to monitor your child’s activities and social and emotional development. 

Trying to sort through all of your child’s problems to curb their loneliness may not, in the end, be too helpful.  Instead, help them to help themselves and learn how to escape their loneliness through friendships. 

This is beautifully encapsulated in the quote by A.A. Milne, the author of Winnie-the-Pooh who reportedly noted that ‘you can’t stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.’