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I Don't Have Any Friends

"I took my daughter to school for her first day. We got to the schoolyard, and her class isn't very big, and the girls were all huddled together, chatting. My daughter walked up to greet them, and they were so mean to her. Catty and cruel - you know how girls can be. I was furious. My daughter came home crying that day, and I just don't know how to help her."

"I watched my son in the schoolyard and it was so clear that he was having difficulty breaking into a group. Several boys were playing basketball, some others were looking through their Pokemon cards, others were standing talking. My son just drifted from group to group, stood there a minute, and when they didn't ask him to join them, he wandered off. It broke my heart."

Kids can be cruel, they can exclude others, and at the beginning of the school year, when it's likely your child's new classroom contains new faces, there is often a period of adjustment before children settle into new relationships. It's during this "settling in period" that painful feelings are likely to erupt for both parent and child. What can parents do?

* Separate your feelings from your child's experience. Ask yourself, "Is my child verbally complaining or expressing upset feelings about the situation? Does my child's body language indicate unhappiness?" These are important questions because sometimes parents witness behavior on the part of their children's peers and interpret that behavior based on their own unpleasant experiences. For example, when you were a child if you had a difficult time making friends at the beginning of a school year, it's likely that you'll be more concerned about your child making friends than would a person who made friends easily. Separate your experience from that of your child - if your child isn't verbally complaining, if he seems content and happy to go to school, then you may be projecting your past experiences and feelings about those experiences onto your child. Step back from the situation and give your child space - it's likely he just has a different style of making and keeping friends than you do.

* Listen to your child. If your child is verbalizing distress, or if it's clear from her demeanor that she's having difficulty making friends or breaking into a group, then listening to what her experience is will be crucial to helping her. While most parents believe they know how to listen, in reality they frequently do more talking than real listening. True listening involves setting time aside to be with your child without outside distractions. It involves watching your child's body language carefully as she talks so you can more fully understand what she's experiencing. It involves not interrupting - with your advice, suggestions, or comments. Instead, ask well-placed questions such as "Then what happened?" "How did you handle that?" "What do you think you want to have happen here?" "Is there a way (or different way) to approach this?" In addition, it's important to let her know you understand how difficult it must be, by saying things like, "The beginning of the year can be hard," "I always feel frustrated when people act like that," "Making new friends can be a challenge." It's not helpful to placate her by telling her things will work out, to look on the bright side, or that she'll make friends eventually. While your intention may be to reassure her, placating only blocks further communication by making your child feel as though you don't really understand. This makes your child reluctant to come to you for help in the future.

* Help your child develop resources. If your child is talking to you about his distress, it means he needs your help developing resources to make friends. He also needs to feel ownership about the solutions you come up with together. The best way to get a child to take responsibility for solutions (yours or his) is to phrase any advice you might have in question form. Thus "What do you think would happen if you invited one of the boys over for a playdate, do you think that would help?" is better than "I'll call one of the mothers and see if we can't line up a playdate for you." Remember that your child is on his own in a classroom for 7 hours a day with his peers - you're not there to give him advice or fix his problems. He needs your help learning to think on his own.

* Remember that your child is still in the adjustment period. Many parents forget that a total adjustment to school takes between 2 and 8 weeks. It's not unusual for children to still be struggling with friendship issues during this time period. Trying to keep your feelings calm will not only make you a better resource to your child, but will help keep her from blowing things out of proportion. By mid-November or early December if your child is still feeling left out and lonely, and hasn't developed at least one friendship, schedule an appointment with her teacher to brainstorm how you can both help - the teacher within the classroom and you at home. Often teachers have insights about the problem that can spark new solutions.

* Provide outside activities where there will be a common interest. If your child does go past the typical adjustment period without making friends, then in addition to scheduling an appointment with your child's teacher, consider providing your child with outside activities where the common interest in the activity may help him make friends. For example, if your child is interested in art, enroll him in an extracurricular art class where his interest in the medium will create an automatic bond with other members of the class. While it isn't a 100% guarantee for forming friendships, it does help if your child's peers are interested in the same kinds of things that he is. And even though his new friends will be outside of school, just knowing he does have friends will be reassuring, as well as making him less likely to think of himself as inadequate.