My Child Can’t Make Friends & Keep Them – Is Something Wrong?

Mom talking to her daughter in an article on why her daughter can't make friends and keep them.

By Caroline Maguire, M.Ed. PCC

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare when your kid comes home from camp or school and says, “Why can’t I make friends?” As much as we wish we had the magic answer to soothe their pain, when your son or daughter tells you they have no friends, it hurts everyone. As the parent, it’s normal to wonder if there was a lesson you missed teaching or something else you could have done. And for your child, the pain of being left out, passed over or simply feeling awkward around other kids is in itself, quite a challenge.

If you’re in the place of worrying and wondering why your child can’t make friends, I can help.

To begin with…

No Child Should Struggle To Make a Friend

Parents are often concerned about how ADHD impacts schooling and homework, but really, making a friend is what’s on your child’s mind. Years ago, when I told the eight-year-old sitting in my office that there was a possibility that if he learned how to change his approach that he could make more friends, he beamed! That was my motivation to ensure that no child would ever need to struggle alone to make a friend. From that experience, the Play Better Plan and my book, Why Will No One Play With Me were born.

So here’s the truth: as much as you love your child, you know that they can’t spend every Saturday night with you for rest of their childhood.

Even with your kid’s flaws, you also know their funny, loveable, quirky, silly, tenacious, energetic, curious and sweet side. This is the part of your kid you wish everyone could see. As parents, getting your kid 24/7, 365 means you get it all. The good, the bad and the “I can’t believe he just said that or she just did that” as well.

So why is it so hard for our little darlings to make friends?

Outside of your watchful eye, your kid experiences the pressures and demands of the world around them. Under those pressures, kids react instinctively, intuitively, and most importantly, how their brain is wired to respond. If your child has ADHD, you’ve likely seen some of these common ADHD traits:

  • Fidgeting and trouble sitting still
  • Talking loudly or without awareness of others in the room
  • Masking and other “cover-up” skills
  • Black and white or all-or-nothing thinking
  • Doing something without thinking
  • Difficulty reading the room or following social cues
  • Hyper-focus or deep levels of concentration at certain times or in certain activities
  • Seemingly little things bother them and they struggle to “let it go”
  • Social awkwardness or struggles to make “small talk” with new acquaintances

These ADHD traits and others are at the root of why it’s hard for kids to make friends. That said, many of these traits ease with age, practice, coaching and skill development. Having a child with ADHD means that their brain requires different ways of learning how to be social. It doesn’t mean that they can’t be social, or that they will never make friends. Adjusting your thinking as a parent and moving away from your mindset that tells you things like, “I didn’t struggle this way” or “making friends should be natural” will help you feel less frustrated and more positive about the future you want for your kid.

As a long-time ADHD coach, there are a handful of things to remember.

#1 Social Skills Don’t Always Come Naturally

Child development experts describe children who have a hard time understanding social cues and managing their behavior as having “social skills deficits” or weaknesses. It is hard for kids with these under-developed parts of their brain to read social cues accurately or understand the unspoken rules of social relationships or play.

It is hard for them to adapt their behavior in response to other kids or as a play situation changes. Without those skills, it is hard to make a friend.

#2 Your Child’s “Social Hub” In Their Brain Is Unevenly Developed

Social skills weaknesses are caused by a wide variety of factors, but the most common is that the brain’s network of executive functions is unevenly developed. Executive function is the hub of skills that include attention, memory, organization, planning, critical-thinking skills, self-regulation, meta cognition (the big-picture, birds-eye view), and the ability to modify our behavior in response to others to achieve a goal.

These are the basic skills every child needs to function well in the social world. In a nutshell, if a child’s executive function social skills are weak, then he or she will have a harder time understanding and managing social interactions. These problems show up in:

  • what children pay attention to in a social setting
  • what they notice about their friends’ needs and reactions
  • how they react and respond to their friends needs, reactions and feelings
  • how they respond to disappointment and manage other emotions
  • how they think about friendship
  • how they react to new or shifting social situations

#3 Play is the first, and most natural, thing kids do

Playing, whether with friends or on their own, is a kid’s natural basis for learning. It’s also a critical way kids learn to do hard things like make a friend. Social behavior is best learned by playing with others. But when your child does not naturally understand how to make friends, then he or she she needs direct instruction and coaching to learn how to make friends. 

The Play Paradox- Less Play Time = Fewer Social Skills

Today, children don’t get as many spontaneous social interactions as kid’s of my generation did. Whether it’s fewer minutes on the playground or gym class or less “goofing around” at sports or clubs, kids get, on average 25% less play or unstructured play time than they did 30 years ago. This loss has children in many ways as this article in the Journal of American Medical Association shares, including creativity and friendship. Without the time to learn naturally through “practice time” how to make friends, it is harder and harder for kids who don’t seek out friendship on their own.

As kids get older, these same kids are at risk of becoming socially isolated and genuinely less motivated to do something hard like a make a new friend. Skills that were easily developed as a child through play time are harder in middle and high school when clicks and cohorts are in place.

The good news is that social skills can be developed just like any other skill. Scientists have discovered that when children with social challenges engage in skill-building activities on a consistent basis, they can learn to interact effectively with other in a social setting.

No matter how hopeless you feel today, your child’s friendship challenges are far from insurmountable. With your help and guidance, your child can build social awareness, improve executive function skills, and learn how to make and keep friends.

How Will Coaching Help My Child?

As a parent, you are on the front lines trying to help you child with social dilemmas. You can add to your list of resources friendship coaching or ADHD coaching to help your child learn how to make friends. Coaching is the process of teaching and practicing social skills with your child. When you engage with a coach or you coach your child yourself, you are helping them with the basic skills they need to make a friend.

It’s no different from coaching your kid to ride a bike, dunk a basketball or to play an instrument. Practice and repetition with positive feedback are the tools you need. As the coach you model the rules of the game and then observe your player offering positive feedback and encouragement along the way. That said, coaching your kid is not always easy. Past criticism, frustration and expectations about your child’s ability to “do something well” can interfere with being an “objective” coach.

If that’s the case, we have lots of ADHD coaches you can explore working with. Sometimes a neutral third-party is best.

Just Remember, If They Could, They Would

Children with social skills weaknesses need help learning basic skills to participate socially so the learn how to make friends without worrying about being rejected or making a mistake. When your child seem oblivious to the feelings of others or to the way his behavior affects how they treat him, it might seem logical to lecture longer or louder until they get it. That rarely works. To see different results, you need to shift your approach. Thankfully, the shift is easier than you think.

Coaching your child to better social skills is not complicated or hard. As a parent who is always on the front lines with your child, you get to see first hand the friendship opportunities in front of your child. Engaging the teachable on-the-spot moments is what makes a parent’s coaching so valuable. After all, “Coach” at the end of the day is just another word for a “parent with a game plan”.

If you run into trouble, don’t hesitate to reach out.

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