Helping your child navigate friendships

Helping your child navigate friendships

Forming friendships is hard enough for adults. For kids, it can be harder. Unlike adults, they’re not yet equipped to fend off the raw sting of cliques and the pervasive presence of bullying; they might also feel isolated because children’s skills for interpreting nonverbal cues are not yet fully developed. 

For kids with special needs, already struggling with an extra helping of social anxieties related to being different, the whole topic of friendships can be difficult. They might already have lower-than-usual self-esteem and feel sensitive about how they’re perceived. They may be less fluent than their peers in understanding nonverbal cues, plus they might have fewer opportunities to practice the very skills that might give them more social confidence. No wonder they find it doubly hard to make friends.

But you can help. Using a skill development model, viewing the goal as a set of learned behaviors, the process of making new friends is like learning to play the piano, ride a bike or hit a baseball. It just takes practice and patience and lots of reinforcement. By breaking the process into achievable chunks, you can help a special-needs kid score small victories—and, eventually, a good friend or twenty.

Though you can’t control for all variables—some kids will still behave rudely, your child’s kindnesses won’t always be repaid—you can build some of these into the “curriculum.” Make time to explain and practice with your child in a safe zone before expecting them to take the show on the road. Do some role-playing, and offer gentle feedback. 

So what are some skills for building a roster of friends?

  • Start simple. Assign the task of smiling at one stranger (ideally someone in the same age group, but not necessarily) every day—even if it doesn’t lead to interaction, even if the smile isn’t returned. It’s still a small victory your child can celebrate. Maybe after a few successful smiles, you might raise up the quota to two or more per day.

  • Move on to saying hello. When your child has smiled enough, challenge them to pair the smile with saying hello, and nothing more, to a stranger at least once every day. If your child gets a hello back and feels comfortable, maybe a spontaneous conversation will begin. That’s like extra credit. Again, feel free to up the ante as appropriate.

  • Add small talk. This might take some practice. When your child has mastered smiling and saying hello to strangers, it’s not a great leap to start a conversation. The best way to accomplish that is to ask a question. Go over some possibilities with your child in advance, so they’ll have an arsenal of appropriate topics. Like a question about the weather. Or last week’s big game. Or a recent assignment in the classroom. It doesn’t have to be a lengthy conversation. Technically, a single coherent response from a stranger would count. You also want to teach your child to steer clear of questions that’ll lead to trouble—like, say, gossip. 

  • Promote listening. One way to get other people talking is by doing more listening. So show how to ask questions specifically about the other person. “That’s a nice shirt—did you just get it?” Or “That’s cool what you did with your bike. Did it take you long?” As confidence builds, your child will master the basics of asking polite questions to keep a conversation moving. 

Be sure to ask about encounters when your child comes home from school, be generous with your praise, and share the excitement when milestones are reached. Commiserate and inspire when things don’t go as planned. 

Other ways you can support your child’s friendship-forming journey:

  • Enlist help from the school. If your child is mainstreamed, school officials can help by explaining your child’s challenges and showing classmates how to navigate them. The teacher may also be able to provide names of other kids with similar interests who might make good candidates as possible friends.

  • Promote extracurricular activities. Your child will be exposed to more possible friends who already have something in common. 

  • Join a social skills program on your own, so you can model what you learn for your child. The program will give you a framework for interaction that can be helpful.

Eventually, friendships will form. From these, you can arrange play dates that create a safe space where your child can experience the joys of more lasting friendship.

Hope haven has a wide range of resources focused on helping special-needs children grow and thrive. For more information, or to arrange a tour call us at 904-346-5100.