Many parents find themselves asking this question. They turn to friends, family, teachers, and therapists in search of an answer. Perhaps they have googled this very question hoping for something… a research study?…a post from another parent?…a plan? “What was that book the teacher recommended?” “Where did I leave the number for that therapist?”
It’s entirely understandable that a parent would feel concerned if they see their child struggling to make and maintain close friendships. Many children spend much of the day outside of the home with peers at school or in extracurricular activities. And it is painful for a parent to imagine their child feeling isolated so much of the time. But parents also realize that trusting and supportive relationships are an essential part of life. People need other people to celebrate, to learn, and to face challenges. How will one’s child thrive without these?
Anxiety and fear build. The question remains unanswered.
It is particularly unhelpful when the parent seeks answers and receives “shoulds” and “justs.” “Just wait, they’ll grow out of it.” “You should take away the videogames.” “Just try a different school.” “You should look into medication.” There may be an element of truth to these pieces of advice, but in so many cases, advice often doesn’t take the whole picture into account
In these situations, a parent’s fear and anxiety can quickly turn to guilt and shame. When posed with a challenging question, we seek answers to alleviate the anxiety of not knowing. And parents may become very hard on themselves. No wonder, as parents frequently face blaming and shaming when their child is struggling.
Although these turns to self-criticism are very normal, they come to interfere with curiosity, creativity, and change. The path forward begins with empathy – for the parents and for the child.
Reframing the Question
“Yes, yes, Dr. Ben, but why can’t some children make friends,” you may be wondering.
I’m suggesting the problem lies in the question. It implies that the onus of friendship making lies on the child. But, as in all relationships, it takes two to make a friendship. When one focuses on the individual child struggling to make friends, the focus quickly turns to “fixing” some deficit or “teaching” some skill. The logical response then becomes to fix what the child is lacking or to teach what they don’t yet know. To be sure, the child may benefit from, and may be actively seeking, clear guidelines and feedback about how to connect with others in the ways they desire. (I’ll discuss more about the child’s perspective on this question in the next post in this series). But an exclusive focus on the child doubly isolates them and neglects the significant impact of the world around them.
Many approaches to this problem will adopt a train-the-trainer approach to guide parents to reinforce skills and strategies in the home. Others will use peer group modalities to provide natural opportunities to learn and apply social skills. And while these approaches offer more than an individual approach, they still leave out many of the relationships and contexts that will influence a child’s standing in their communities.
The Forrest and the Trees
Teachers, classrooms, schools, neighborhoods, and national and global phenomena all shape each child’s relationship with their world in unique ways. From this perspective, the problem of why a child “can’t make friends” may have more to do with how their environment is responding to them than a lack of skills.
In my work with neurodiverse children, there is often some combination of the above. They, like all children, benefit from guidance and instruction in how to navigate relationships. But they may also have specific needs that go unmet or gifts that go unnoticed. Taking stock of these, and working at multiple levels in a child’s environment, is an important step to helping the child thrive.
With so many important variables to consider, the task of helping a child with friendships requires multiple perspectives and blanket advice is frequently unhelpful. Each party brings expertise. The therapist has expertise in child development and the practice of therapy. The parents and the child are the expert on the child. Together, this team can make use of the many rich opportunities to learn and grow that daily life provides.
The therapist helps to coordinate this process so that the focus can move beyond providing information and learning skills, and into deepening the child’s relationship with their world in a way that respects who they are and their parents’ role in their life. Curiosity about, and empathy for, the child’s mind and experience are key in this work.
I will dive a bit deeper into the child’s perspective in Part 2.