Help my kid make friends
October 15, 2012 6:00 AM   Subscribe

Please help me help my 10 year old to make friends.

My kid has a rough time with social relationships. Up until now, she's been relatively happy as a loner, but lately I see her reaching out, yet failing to connect with her peers, and feeling sad about it. When she's with kids her age she talks at them instead of to them. She lectures and talks loudly. She gets physically in their space as she gets more excited, and they respond by moving away. She tends to want to control the play if she's playing with other kids, and disengages easily if other kids are running the activity. Other kids tend to stay away from her and she's never invited to play dates or birthday parties.

She's a very bright and empathetic kid, full of love and enthusiasm, but she's also very ADHD, spacey, and loses her temper or gets overwhelmed easily.

She's done some art therapy and kids socialization groups, and is also medicated for her ADHD. We've also tried various behaviorist interventions for behavioral issues with mixed success. I know she gets some of this stuff from me so I'm trying to work on my own behaviors and think about what I'm modeling to her.

But I think right now she needs some specific help around connecting with other kids outside of a clinical or medical setting. I've considered getting her a book, along the lines of How To Win Friends and Influence People, if there is such a book appropriate for kids, because she's very cerebral and reads a lot (including non-fiction and books for adults). Not really sure what else to try. I know for adults it's pretty hard to see how our own behaviors impact how people want to or don't want to connect with us, and I think this is even harder for her. Even if she can get what turns other kids off (which I've done some coaching with her about), actually making changes to her behavior is hard for understandable reasons.

Do you have suggestions of books or other resources, for her or for me, to help her learn how to be a friend to other kids? I'm really open on what kinds of interventions to try so any suggestions welcome.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
My kneejerk response to the idea of giving a kid a book to learn about how to be less awkward in their socialization is pretty negative. While some of the behaviors you mention can be modified a LOT of what you're describing is likely compensation for a lack of confidence and feeling uncomfortable. I can't imagine how reading a book or taking lessons would help that, or really do anything other than make it worse.

So, what can she do? The same sorts of things that we tell adults to do when they ask how to make friends, find an activity that she enjoys, and can become confidently good at. Seek opportunities to interact with people related to that activity. As her confidence grows you can continue to model good behavior traits, and maybe even offer specific advice on one thing at a time (for example talking very close to people) but what would likely be most helpful is meeting more kids, and more importantly different kids.

One of the most difficult things about changing your interactions can be the kids who remember how you used to act. If she can join a gymnastics club, or a theater class that ISN'T with current classmates that would probably be the most helpful.

If she's just started reaching out, don't despair, she's already practicing new skills- these take a little time to develop.
posted by dadici at 6:21 AM on October 15, 2012 [10 favorites]

What about watching TV shows? They often have simplified interpersonal relationships that help people learn how to interact. It's part of the reason there's a whole adult "My Little Pony" following. Both my sister and I watched a lot of anime (Japanese cartoons) as kids (and we both grew out of it), though you'd want to make sure it's age appropriate if you let your child watch it. And if her friends watch shows too, it's something they can enjoy together without having to fight over control.
posted by ethidda at 6:33 AM on October 15, 2012

Seconding dadici. Find her an extracurricular group that is literally outside of her school group. It may take her awhile to become comfortable there, but as new people join every year / season / whatever, eventually she'll learn how to behave and -- this is important -- the kids who remember her awkward times may have left.
posted by AmandaA at 6:37 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your daughter sounds exactly like my nephew, who was diagnosed with Asperger's when he was about 3-4 years old. His dad is a pediatrician, and has done a good job teaching my nephew to pick up on a number of social cues, though a lot of this is based on pattern recognition, rather than an innate understanding.

He's 13 now, and aside from occasionally getting together with other kids similar to himself (not at his school, his parents connected with other parents/kids through some online resources), he mostly does not have "friends" in the way we traditionally think of "friends," as they ultimately speak completely different social languages. It might be helpful to ask your child's therapist if she knows of any resources to connect sort of socially awkward kids with each other in your area. At the very least, it has helped my nephew understand that he is not alone, and there are other kids out there in the world, who are a lot like him.

Going through the utter hell that is middle school, he's picked up and refined more sort of solitary interests, like being interested in technology, cars, rock music, and allow him to feel value and self worth in being pretty damn smart and knowing a lot about useful things. YMMV, but it may be worth talking to your child's therapist or someone at her school, about finding ways to foster her self worth and channel her interests and enthusiasm, rather than fitting into a paradigm of socialization that doesn't seem to come naturally to her.
posted by raztaj at 6:39 AM on October 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

This book was recommended to me by a really smart person:
Friends Forever: How Parents Can Help Their Kids Make and Keep Good Friends. At least, the older edition was, which had a much better title, in my opinion: "Good Friends Are Hard To Find".

When I was looking for that, I found there *is* a book called 'How to Win Friends and Influence People for Kids', as well as one titled 'The Unwritten Rules Of Friendship: Simple Strategies To Help Your Child Make Friends' . . . which reminded me of The Unwritten Rules Of Social Relationships by Temple Grandin. Temple Grandin is fascinating, and HBO made a movie about her called Love starring Claire Danes -- which is not entirely on topic but I think you and your daughter would both love it.

My sons have similar issues to what you describe in your daughter, except for one big difference, which is that they are not lonely. One thing I do with them is talk about people's innate urge for 'connection' (especially Mommy's!), and how when they are behaving in a certain way, people don't feel connection with them, and it can the person their talking to feel sad and alone -- it's taken months of saying this but they are making progress.

And both of them have gotten into playing Minecraft, and after searching a little to find the right server, have made friends online. As a mom, online friends are not my ideal idea of 'friends', but they seem happy and maybe it's the wave of the future . . .
posted by MeiraV at 6:42 AM on October 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

Has she been screened for other disorders that can affect social skills? A lot of this is ADHD and, frankly, I never did make too many friends until I was able to surround myself with people of my choosing, most of whom have ADHD.

I benefited from multiple groups though (4H, church, camp in addition to school) so I could try skills on people who weren't already annoyed with me.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:46 AM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

nthing dadici & others.

Sounds like sports or girl scouts or something would be exactly what she needs.
posted by colin_l at 6:55 AM on October 15, 2012

You may want to look into finding her more high-energy friends, self-selecting with activities which have high-energy individuals. Otherwise, even if she makes friends, she's way less likely to connect.
posted by corb at 7:00 AM on October 15, 2012

I work in a school, and I see this happening with so many students. Sometimes what's helpful is having kind adult bystanders who knows about her tendencies, and can diffuse encounters that aren't going well. I remember look across the room or schoolyard at the students who have these issues and remind them of what works better before situations escalate, or guide them towards groups or activities where they'll succeed instead of the ones that set them up to fail. I sit them in places where they won't conflict with those that are more bothered by such things, and give them jobs and tasks and ask them for help so they can feel great about what they are good at (I would bet your daughter would be one of the ones who is excellent at taking younger students to the washroom.) It's the unstructured times like the Breakfast Program, recess and lunch where interactions that haven't gone well carry over into the rest of the day.

Might I suggest that you speak to your daughter's school's teacher/principal/social worker? At our school several students have "friendship groups." You've done the clinical groups, but it's different at school. Sometimes it's for the ASD students, but sometimes it's for students whose social skills development is delayed a bit. It can be created as a structured group with guidance and activities; or it can be as simple as the teacher taking care to place her in with kinder souls who'll help her do well when it comes time for group work. This article says it succinctly - ""The adults in the school are too old to teach (Ges) how to be a friend, (they're) the only ones that can." A board game club can be great for this too - our Librarian has one at lunch, and it is so great because of the structure. There are rules, and turns, and it's the type of activity where an adult can intervene gently and everyone can talk all through it about what makes a game fun and enjoyable and successful.

This is so hard to see happening. As a parent with a quirky kid, I feel for you. I spent a prep period Friday afternoon talking to my daughter's teacher about what we're doing to help her with her extreme emotional reactions which are triggered by one of her friend's treatment of her (the friend just got an Aspberger's diagnosis, which helps us explain to our daughter why some things happen.) We're doing everything from reminding her she can drink water at her desk (helps keep her headaches that wear her down at bay); to always have pen and paper to doodle (de-stresses her and lets her brain work things out); letting her bypass "hot spots" (if she's had a conflict at recess, she can go up to the room to wait and calm down instead of standing in line when she's upset); reminding her to listen to adults when they suggest pattern interrupts ("Please go to the washroom and have a drink and splash your face."). My daughter needs reminding by the adults around her that she can do these things. It's hard, in the heat of play, for kids to re-frame and remember. And yes, as others suggest, we give her outside activities galore where she can have a break from the stress of school and many fresh starts.

Learning what the teacher is doing at school and being consistent with it at home is really helpful. It's wonderful when you have the teacher's sympathy. Whenever we discover one of my daughter's coping skills, we work to reinforce it and practice it at home. So, I'd suggest that though you've done so much already, that you explore what the school can do to help.
posted by peagood at 7:10 AM on October 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

Your kid sounds like my kid! What has started to help mine is finding a social group in which social awkwardness/ADHD is par for the course. Her best friend, for example, has two younger brothers, both of whom are ADHD, so she's used to navigating behavioral quirks that other kids might find offputting.

In theory, I also recommend sports or girl scouts, but feel obligated to mention that our experience with that was fairly negative--my daughter ended up feeling ostracized and excluded, and is now reluctant to try anything again. I'd suggest talking to the adults involved before you enroll your daughter in any program--try to figure out how much supervision there is, and just how willing they are to accommodate kids who fall slightly outside the norm.
posted by MeghanC at 7:12 AM on October 15, 2012

Bit of mindfulness training couldn't hurt.
posted by flabdablet at 7:14 AM on October 15, 2012

Some kids fail socially because they are insensitive to social cues and can learn techniques, but others fail because they are too sensitive and reactive to negative social cues which so-called normal kids have learned to ignore. If your daughter is in the latter category, she will need to feel better about herself rather than to be told to become different than who she is by acting "artificially" according to learned social rules. I suggest therapy in this case.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:23 AM on October 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

A few of the books I recommend to families I work with are

The Hidden Curriculum: Practical Solutions for Understanding Unstated Rules in Social Situations by Brenda Smith Myles

Raise Your Child's Social IQ: Stepping Stones to People Skills for Kids by Cathi Cohen

The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships by Temple Grandin and Sean Barron
posted by goggie at 7:31 AM on October 15, 2012

When she's with kids her age she talks at them instead of to them.

To me, this is the crux of the problem. Friends share ideas, feelings, and experiences with each other. If she can't hold a conversation with someone her own age, how can she create connections?

I am working with a 10 year old at my museum who came to summer camp with us and now volunteers with me as her mentor/supervisor. She has some of the same issues that your daughter appears to have. (She told me recently that her Mom is making her go to a socialization class for kids with Aspergers. I'm not sure if that's her diagnosis, officially.) Her biggest issue is what I call "monologuing." She can talk at length about a subject that interests her, but 1) she doesn't ever ask me what I think of the topic, 2) if I do interject a comment, she doesn't reflect back my thought or respond directly, and 3) she can't really talk about stuff outside of her range of interests.

If I were you, I would try to work on her listening skills and model some conversations. She then needs to practice these skills over and over again. I don't think plonking her down in a group of girls right away is going to help until she gets a handle on her conversational skills. My little volunteer entered summer camp with a group of other nerdy science kids and still couldn't make the connections because she couldn't communicate effectively with them.

I know it's really hard to watch. Hang in there! (Maybe you're already doing everything I'm suggesting already. If so, I'm sorry for the repetition.)
posted by Mouse Army at 7:43 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your kid sounds a bit like mine as well--she's never gotten an official diagnosis for any of her various quirks but when they all add up, they make her a really interesting and challenging person (for better and worse).

Some of the things that have worked for us:

Setting up one-on-one playdates; these situations are simpler and fraught with fewer opportunities for her to be socially bewildered. I make the effort to set these up proactively, and encourage her to suggest friends to invite over but will make the suggestion myself if she is reticent.

Being somewhat candid with other parents about her issues. For me this means letting them know that we recognize she has certain qualities and that they are identified and being addressed, and to an extent, asking those parents to help support us a bit by accepting play dates and returning the favor by offering them.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, as learned from a psychologist, practiced as a family. This is a great way for us to stop an emotional situation that's getting out of hand and talk through it step by step and turn it around, in hopes that this will build a sort of muscle memory that ensures she can do the same on her own in social situations.

Accepting certain quirks as just Kid Being Kid, not trying to solve every one of her perceived "problems". Also, helping make distinctions between "quirk-appropriate" times and times when other behavior is expected/required. Silly voice time is not so great at the dinner table or when talking to Grandma who can't understand it over the phone, but silly voice time is AMAZING at the park.

Being really closely in contact with her teachers, which helps not only academically, but allows us to parse the reality of how our child describes situations that arise at school.

Working very hard on communication and learning to ask the right questions to see what's really going on. One of my daughter's big things is to say "I have no friends, everybody hates me, nobody would play with me at school". After a little effort it can just turn out that on this particular day she wanted to play something at recess and most of the other kids wanted to play something else. Rather than choose to do what she wanted alone or in a smaller group, or choose to forgo her own choice in favor of the majority, she simply chose to write it off as a universal snub, in a long line of similar snubs. Once we know that, we have something tangible to work on.

Some of the things that "everyone" recommends have totally failed for us: martial arts, for example, was a total bust. On the other hand, she's great at rock climbing. Certain group activities like Girl Scouts have worked for us, others haven't (and actually, our first GS troop wasn't a good fit at all, but we joined a different one and it's amazing, so don't necessarily rule out an activity that you have hopes for without looking at other options). I'm planning to enroll her in a local improv school's children's program when she's old enough, to see if we can channel some of her need to perform. Perhaps you can find a way to make your daughter's "talking at" tendencies into a positive as well.

Being very open with her about what a weird, socially awkward, loner of a kid I was (and still am!) helps a lot. It helps when I can share what I did to cope, and it also helps when I admit that I never did find a way around something and just had to come to accept it as part of my personality, and let other people accept it in me as well.
posted by padraigin at 7:45 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Coming back one more to share: When my brother was in Jr High/HS I seriously considered the idea that he had Aspergers, he wasn't ADHD but he definitely was socially awkward, and lived in his own little world. Fastforward a couple years and he came out as gay. He had known since he was 6 or 7 and wasn't sure how to process/handle so he didn't. Once he came out he made friends, lots of them. And his social skills improved overnight because he wasn't spending so much time up in his head worrying about the face he was portraying to the world.

I'm not implying that your daughter has the same story at all, but it's worth considering that there is something that she is focusing on in her head instead of interacting out in the "real world".

Also, I concur that if groups aren't great try one-on-one playdates, but remember that with one-on-one you're going to have to try more people to find a good match.
posted by dadici at 8:21 AM on October 15, 2012

I get dadici's concern, but sometimes a book is really a great route to try. My 7yo is a "big personality" extrovert while I'm a relatively unsocialized introvert. We both like How To Make and Keep Friends. It assumes the reader is a kid, and each "issue" gets a simple one-page description and set of suggestions. My son and I will often skim a topic on the way out the door to make sure we're not going to inadvertently step on any toes just by being our normal intro- and extroverted selves. If your daughter's issues stem from a struggle to parse social situations and other people's actions, I think this and goggie's suggestions may address them. The way I explained it to my son was that different social settings had different rules and--rather than guess and stress--we would learn them and practice them together. It's not about "being good" or "being better than your normal self," it's about choosing the appropriate version of your persona for a successful relationship in this particular setting.

My other suggestion is to invite possible friends and playmates over one at a time, so that your daughter can focus on a simpler dynamic between her and one other person, instead of the super-fluid and fast-moving dynamics of a group. If you can do a new or neutral activity (origami? apple-picking?) even better. I hear everyone suggesting non-school activities, but my opinion is that if your daughter's going to work on this, she might as well reap any two-fold benefits that carry over to school relationships. If she has a good playdate with Amika, then Amika will probably be more open to including her at school, or saying good things about her to other kids, or simply not complaining about being paired with her for partner work on math, etc. It will take more than one playdate, and with more than one school mate, to find some good fits, but it can happen.

Part of the responsibility is on you as parent to make these happen, keep them low stress, end on a good note (shorter rather than 3 hours may be good). Set her up for success with the people she has to interact with everyday. Prep her beforehand about turn-taking, volume level, etc. Let both kids know that if they need a break from each other there's X activity to do (coloring alone, stringing beads, cooking project, etc.). That way they don't let stress build up with a fear of no outlet. Let your daughter know you can talk afterwards about where she felt she was doing well and where she struggled or "fell out of relationship" with the other person. Make sure it's clear that you're in this on the same side, and not that you're looking for gotchas (which it doesn't sound like you would do, but kids can read that into a request to pass the milk, soooo.). Good luck!
posted by cocoagirl at 8:36 AM on October 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

The way that Obscure Referenced phrased that -- "others fail because they are too sensitive and reactive to negative social cues which so-called normal kids have learned to ignore" -- sounds just like my little sister (now 30!!). She had a really hard time making friends who were going to be nice to her, especially in elementary school and junior high. What really helped her was just finding one other person who was also able to be sensitive -- but who had already found other kindred spirits.
posted by oh really at 9:14 AM on October 15, 2012

Also, 10 is a hard year, I think. Adolescence is creeping up, school is harder, relationships in general are more complicated. That's not going to change, but eventually your daughter will learn to navigate it, but the next few years are going to be bumpy regardless of what you do.

In addition to all the advice above, make sure your daughter knows that she is so, so normal in having these problems, and that it just takes a while to learn how to manage friendships (and romantic relationships later) because people are complicated. And that every other kid she meets is just as worried, deep inside, about not fitting in, some are just lucky in that their personalities hide it better.

Let her take a slow approach; bursts of socializing followed up by alone time. Maybe do some roleplaying before she goes into stressful situations like parties or events so she can rehearse what to say/how to make small talk. Teach her how to ask people about themselves and listen for things to ask them's the simplest and most useful trick for socializing.
posted by emjaybee at 9:50 AM on October 15, 2012

A mixed-age group -- ideally a pretty broad mixed-age group -- is a real blessing for kids who have trouble socializing. The natural hierarchy created by age helps override a lot of the hierarchy-sorting behavior of inclusion and exclusion. Older children will be more sensitive to and understanding about your daughter's problems; younger children will be more oblivious to them. (Either is easier than a kid exactly her age who notices them, but isn't sympathetic, and, worst of all, is jockeying for status in a peer group.) These are typically easier to find through a specific-interest group (Bird Watchers of Toledo would probably have a "kids of all ages" kids group, rather than single-age groupings) or through a parks & rec community recreation type groups. Schools are too focused on age-grouping.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:25 AM on October 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Along the lines of How To Win Friends and Influence People, I really enjoyed Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People at age 9, and, in particular, Covey's advice on listening, empathizing, and negotiating effectively stuck with me and has had at least some influence on how I interact with others since. I know there are editions aimed at children and teens, but I haven't read them; actually, I think I liked that it was aimed at adults, even though it required a bit more imagination to see how the ideas applied to my own life. I think it was also important that my parents presented it to me as, "here's a book you might find interesting and helpful," rather than as a solution to something wrong with me.

I agree that she may find it helpful to get involved in new activities, particularly ones involving a wider age range of kids: social dynamics can be easier in settings where kids aren't all expected to be at the same place developmentally. I particularly recommend theater: it can be a great haven for slightly awkward kids that gives them an opportunity to shine creatively, while at the same time encouraging collaboration. However, any activity that she doesn't know much about (but is interested in learning more about, thus motivating her to listen to and work with others) could be helpful.

Perhaps counterintuitively, giving her more leadership opportunities could also help--along with some adult (or perhaps teen) mentorship to guide her as she balances implementing her vision with incorporating other kids' ideas and respecting their emotional comfort.

Lastly, I want to concur that that this is a tough age to be, and it does get better. I was like your daughter in many ways at that age: boisterous, fiercely independent, and liable to talk over others and move into their space. Even at 22, I manifest some of these qualities at times! The thing that's different is that I'm more self-aware and can dial those things back as necessary--and thus can collaborate with others and have wonderful circles of friends. Finding "your people" also helps--a lot!--and that doesn't always happen in elementary school.
posted by beryllium at 11:29 AM on October 15, 2012

I wasn't clear from your question whether your kid has seen a child psychologist. I have a friend who is a cp and she teaches these skills to kids. One thing she emphasizes and teaches is grooming, which really is important to kids fitting in. So look at that too, but mostly I think a good cp should be able to help her with this.
posted by bananafish at 12:58 PM on October 15, 2012

Stephen Covey is a good suggestion. My sympathy to your daughter, I was like that at her age and never figured the situation out. In college Stephen Covey did offer some good insights that I wish I'd thought of earlier.

Also, this doesn't mean your kid has Asperger's. I don't have Asperger's, I just had no conception of social skills.
posted by schroedinger at 4:47 PM on October 15, 2012

Seconding theater; as a quirkyalone kid back in the day, having a formalized Show-Off Space was key. She sounds like she has a TON of energy that isn't getting burned off during the school day (not surprising considering the sheer amount of sitting that most formal education involves, ugh). If it would make a difference in her social life, would you be willing to jog around the neighborhood with her for 15-20 minutes every morning?

Modeling might also be a great help in this situation. Do you have grownup play-dates where you have a friend or two come over for a responsive, emotionally-sensitive conversation and a cuppa tea? If you used to do this and haven't since the kid was born, maybe she is missing some exposure to more mature patterns of interaction. After all, if you take school as the paradigmatic case of What Adults Do, they *totally* monologue all the live-long day and get all up in kids' spaces and try to control the game, whatever the game may be.

Whatever you do, I thoroughly recommend AGAINST giving her some sort of "self-help for unpopular kids" book. My well-meaning mother did this when I was around 10, and I knew exactly what was going on; it hit me like a knife in the gut that my own mother thought I didn't have the innate capacity to make friends. The advice in the book boiled down to "be nice and be yourself," which is completely wrong and out of touch when the prevailing model of popularity in your middle school is some hybrid between Mean Girls and Lord of the Flies. YMMV.
posted by katya.lysander at 4:57 PM on October 16, 2012

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