How to Help Your Anxious Child Make Friends

friendsMaking new friends can be scary stuff, even for adults. Multiply the terror by 1 million and you may be nearing how scary it can be for an anxious child. Despite the potential horror of it all, your anxious child can indeed develop skills that help him or her make new friends. All they may need is some time, a little practice and a smidgen of help from mom or dad.

Listening and Observing 

Your child may not be very open about talking to you about problems with friendships, but you can gently coax out information with a few questions. Never force the issue if your child doesn’t want to talk, but do let him or her know you’re always there to listen.

Questions can include asking if your child played with anyone today and, if so, what they did. You can also focus on the idea of making new friends by asking about other children your child may enjoy getting to know.

It may be helpful to remind your child that making friends is a skill, like any other skill, that they can learn more about and practice. You can start by observing your child’s behavioral habits to note if he or she inadvertently gives off an unfriendly vibe. Such habits can include:

  • Never smiling or otherwise making dour facial expressions
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Mumbling or speaking so softly it’s difficult for others to hear
  • Stand-offish body language, such as arms folded in front of the chest

Additional skills to look for include those surrounding basic conversations, such as saying hello, goodbye and asking questions, as well as basic friendship skills. The latter consists of things like offering to help people, sharing things and asking to join in on a conversation or game.

Role Playing

Role playing is an ideal way to work on social and friendship skills in the safety and comfort of your own home. Pinpoint the skills that could use a boost then practice interacting with your child to develop them. Work on one skill at a time so as not to overwhelm, then move forward to play the part of a new acquaintance or classmate.

Check for the eye contact and other friendly body language as well as facial expressions, polite greetings and goodbyes. Reversing the roles may be a good place to start, AnxietyBC notes, so you can show your child the skills in action and model the behavior he or she can mimic. Use gentle suggestions to improve specific behaviors and, above all, don’t forget to praise you child for skills that are developing nicely.

  • Great eye contact. It really made me feel like you were interested in me.
  • Your voice was nice and loud, very good for conversation.
  • I bet I would feel a little more friendly toward you if you smiled when you said hello.

Take it to the next level by helping your anxious child initiate a full-fledged conversation with ice-breakers and key questions that can get people talking and interacting.

Ice-Breakers and Key Questions

Compliments are very good ice-breakers, both for children and adults, as most folks are instantly flattered when you point out something you like about them. Perhaps it’s a new haircut, a cool lunchbox or the way a classmate performed in a presentation or game. Offer examples of honest compliments your child could give others as a way to start people talking. Asking for help or offering help can also kick off a conversation.

Social settings in schools often revolve around the playground and the lunch room and if your child has an ice-breaker up his or her proverbial sleeve (or in the lunchbox), conversations can develop naturally from there. Maybe your child can bring a unique snack or toy to share.

A lineup of simple questions can work to start conversations, many of which can stem from the classroom or activities in which the children are participating.

  • What art project did you like the best?
  • Do you make art at home, too?
  • What’s the silliest art project you ever made?
  • Did you like the animal book we read in class?
  • What animal is your favorite?
  • Do you have any pets at home? 

Let your child come up with some examples, as well, to get his or her mind moving the direction of discourse. Remind your child to actually listen to the answers and not just rattle off a list of questions. Talking, listening and interacting are what can plant the seeds of an ongoing friendship.

Practice and ‘Friendship Goals’

Putting your child’s new friendship skills to use and establishing what AnxietyBC calls “friendship goals” can help your child practice the skills in social situations. You might want to start with something like a trip with your child to the supermarket where your child will say hello and goodbye to the cashier.

Keep taking small steps to expand the scope and increase your child’s confidence until he or she is ready to launch those new skills on his or her own at school. Here’s where the friendship goals can kick in. No, you are not requiring your child to come running home with a whole list of classmates that are suddenly best friends. You are instead working with your child to establish mini-goals as a way to practice the new skills. Examples of friendship goals can be:

  • Smiling and saying hello to at least one classmate
  • Offering a compliment to someone at lunch
  • Asking to play with someone at recess

What NOT to Do for Your Anxious Child

Forcing your anxious child to make friends or saying it’s somehow the child’s own fault that he or she has few friends is never a wise path to take. Anxious children can crumble under any kind of pressure, and forcing them into friendships is a large kind of pressure indeed. Rather than prompting action, a feeling of being forced can backfire and make your anxious child feel even more anxious, insecure and self-conscious. You can help set the stage but let the friendships flow naturally from there. 

Assuming all children want or need loads of friends is another unwise move. Your anxious child may be more of an introvert who prefers one or two close friends instead of a handful of classmates. Quality always trumps quantity when it comes to friends and your child may be much more comfortable slowly developing meaningful relationships with one or two children than he or she would be plunging into a whole pool of pals.

One more tip is to remind your child that the best way to make a friend is to be a good friend by being friendly, kind, and offering help and positive encouragement to others.


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