Help a little dude make friends
September 8, 2022 12:30 AM   Subscribe

My eight-year-old son has asked for my help making more friends in school. Can you please help me give him concrete ideas / actions he can take?

My son is a good, friendly kid, but is introverted and is easily intimidated by crowds and lots of action. He has good friends among the neighbors and has no problem making friends quickly in small group or 1:1 situations. However, he is really struggling at school to make lasting friendships. He has said he feels a bit lonely and has specifically asked for my help. I would like to give him concrete actions he can take, appropriate to his age. I've added some info about his personality and situation, and can also come back if more details are needed.

- He has some attention problems, but not associated with hyperactivity. His teachers describe him as "in the clouds" and "in his own world" at school. We also observe this at home but to a lesser extent. I think it's partly related to being a bit overwhelmed by the noise and stimulation at school. He gets great grades and is generally happy to go to school every day.

- The only recurring behavior issues are around the attention problems. He gets in trouble sometimes for not listening, or not following instructions (usually because he didn't hear them).

- He goes to a small private school outside of our neighborhood, and we don't live very close to any of his classmates. The smaller school environment seems to be going much better than the more raucous public school he was at previously. But he still struggles to make friends after a year.

- We've initiated a few playdates but they are a bit laborious to schedule. No one seems to reach out to him to schedule anything.

- He doesn't report any bullying. He says he mostly plays by himself at recess because he doesn't know who to ask to join or how to do the asking.

- He's not big on highly physical sports, so doesn't want to join the large group of boys who play soccer at recesses. He loves climbing, skateboarding, swimming, and skiing, but can't do any of those at school.

Thanks for reading, and we appreciate any advice you can offer!
posted by ohio to Human Relations (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The attention issues could be ADHD - hyperactivity is not necessary, there's such a thing as inattentive ADHD, which can look like a still/quiet daydreaming kid from the outside.

It might be worth getting him screened for ADHD, because if he does have ADHD, ADHD meds will help him with

emotional regulation

and not interrupting/blurting out

both of which will help him make friends.
posted by carriage pulled by cassowaries at 1:08 AM on September 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Have you talked to his teacher about this? Some teachers will do things such as create paired activities for the students or peer tutoring to help the children in their class get one on one time with other students. Alternatively, the teacher might be aware of other children who also like climbing, skateboarding, swimming, and skiing, which would give your little person a conversational “in”. The teacher may have also noticed some interpersonal dynamics that could lead to some very actionable suggestions for your little person.

Some of what you describe reminds me a lot of one of my nephews, who was later diagnosed as on the spectrum. With help and feedback from his teacher, the father spent a lot time with his little person practicing things like saying hi when someone said hi first, or saying ‘that’s neat’ when someone shared something they liked with him.

I wish your little person courage and luck!
posted by Silvery Fish at 2:39 AM on September 8, 2022 [9 favorites]

Best answer: A girl walked up to me in the school playground when I was 7 and said - I can’t quite remember but either: “Do you want to be my friend?” or “Do you want to play with me?”.

I was slightly taken aback because even at that age I recognised that this was an unusually direct approach, but it worked. We were friends right through Junior school (age 7 to 11) and then she moved to another town but 41 years later we’re still facebook friends :)

So maybe equipping him with a few lines like that and telling him it’s OK to use them and just walk up to someone.

I guess it’s slightly dependent on personality and neuro-typicality whether this feels doable for him, though.
posted by penguin pie at 2:50 AM on September 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: When my daughter was trying to make friends at a new school, I gave her a few toys or props as an ‘in’ that other kids might like to play with. I think one of them was a skipping rope. In your case, find out the latest playground craze is (at our school recently it was Rubik’s cubes) and give your kid a couple, one for him, one to share with a friend or something they can do together. That way it’ll be an icebreaker, he’ll have a cool toy to share and he can invite another child to play. It worked for my daughter.
posted by Jubey at 3:00 AM on September 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

Does your library system have a Battle of the Books program? Our sons participation on these teams were so fun that by the second kiddo, I coached the team. It’s basically reading solidly good chapter books followed by a giant, very fun trivia event. It gives the kids something to do to get together 1-2x a month, and they socialize/play after. It gives them something to talk about at school or wherever they see each other. Schools always have more than a few teams, and it doesn’t have to be linked to a school, either. The first team arose from a rec soccer team.
posted by childofTethys at 3:31 AM on September 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

With my kid, she just jumped on the pokemon trading card bandwagon.
posted by Omnomnom at 4:04 AM on September 8, 2022

Video games.
posted by haptic_avenger at 5:11 AM on September 8, 2022

Best answer: If he's more comfortable one on one or in small groups, keep trying with the playdates even though they're difficult to schedule. Do this with the intention of your house being the BEST and most FUN house for kids to come to. Have the best video and other games, the best snacks, the best toys, a fun area to play outside, and be welcoming and easy going hosts with the kids.

This may seem a little over the top, but the intention is that the kids will want to come back, and through this shared time together he will legitimately find kids from school who want to be his friends, and it will carry over to the school environment.

Also seconding ADHD testing for inattentive type.

Good luck! :)
posted by fourpotatoes at 5:36 AM on September 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Your description of your sun sounds like textbook ADHD inattentive type. I’m certainly not diagnosing him over the internet, but it’s definitely worth getting him screened for ADHD. Many adults who were diagnosed with ADHD later in life wish they were diagnosed much sooner, because going undiagnosed can seriously impact self-esteem once school starts getting more difficult.

For your sun, it might be helpful to encourage him to talk to other kids who seem to be spending a lot of time alone at school. Look for kids with common interests. Easier said than done, I know! I also am an introvert and had a hard time making friends at school.
posted by mekily at 5:45 AM on September 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This sounds a lot like me at that age.

Even today, the activites I enjoy that are sporty are things I don't have to be on a team for. Swimming, hiking, running, yoga -- none of this requires any skill that others rely on to "win."

I was the boy who jumped rope with all of the girls. This was the 70s, early 80s. The other boys sensed I was different (i'm a gay man) even at that age, and the girls didn't care what I was or how I acted. I was called faggot every day by the boys, so naturally I drifted to the girl groups. I was bullied tremendously by boys, and I'm glad to hear your kid is reporting no bullying.

Has he tried making friends of all genders? Boys are hard at that age, especially of you can't play "the sports."

I made friends through band and Boy Scouts. I have a lot of problems as an adult gay man with the Boy Scouts, but it remains one of the most meaningful experiences of my life, and I made friends with other boys who enjoyed things like compasses and rope tying and puzzles and exploring.

Also, BRAVO for your parenting. I would have NEVER asked my parents a question like that as a kid. He must feel so safe with you, and that is more important than any advice you can give!
posted by archimago at 5:48 AM on September 8, 2022 [12 favorites]

Seconding what fourpotatoes says: keep doing the playdates, and build in stuff that appeals to kids such as treats. My teen child still talks about the time five years ago that he went to a friend's house and they took him out to a Chinese buffet for dinner! This blew both our minds. Never previously had a family absconded--absconded!-with my child to a restaurant. We were both thrilled. Because I also picked up the tip that I could get a lot of mileage out of, for instance, having not just ice cream, but SpRiNkLeS! Or not just chips, but chips and Melted Cheese! Or breakfast for dinner! Lots of visiting friends have now been delighted by low stress stuff like that.

Another thing that has worked well for us, is when some parent makes general plans and mass-emails the other parents. This can work for last minute stuff ("Hey, we're going to go see the new Lego movie this weekend. We'll be at the noon show and it would be a hoot if anyone else whats to show up.") or for more planned activities. One person at our school planned weekly hikes during the pandemic. As a single, very introverted, stretched-thin mom, I've always so, so appreciated the parents who did this. I may not have enough time/energy to plan stuff, but I will happily join, bring snacks or a med kit, point out interesting flora, and keep middle-schooler spirits up. And it has meant that my kid's social circles and skills grew and were strengthened.

I'll also add that now is a good time to be making the extra effort on your child's behalf. In a year or two he may be getting himself to and from school, or able to line up his own get-togethers with friends after school. So having a foundation of people, experiences, and skills laid now is really helpful for most kids.
posted by cocoagirl at 7:40 AM on September 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

My little dude was pretty much in the same boat as your son. Getting an ADHD-PI diagnosis from a neuropsychologist was a first step, but I would also look into the possibility of Social Communication Disorder.

At an earlier time this would have been hand-waved as just being on the autistic spectrum, but SCD is now being recognized as out of that group and more of a higher-level functioning problem. Kids with SCD have problems with pragmatic language, figures of speech, gathering intention from a speaker, even eye contact... all things that hamper social interaction and impede the process of making friends.

So, echoing the above, get a referral for a neuropsych evaluation from your pediatrician. Do not let them try to do it all at once (ours wanted to put the kid in a windowless room for 4 hours with very little breaks). And do not freak out when the report is done. It's a starting point and not the final answer for your son. You're doing the best you can for him and that's way more valuable than any medicine or label.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:05 AM on September 8, 2022

You and your son are awesome for having such a trusting and open emotional connection.

I was very introverted and internal and daydreamy from a very young age and even got notes sent home to my mother about my lack of attention in class and daydreaming. Mom was a daydreamer herself and very empathic toward me. I had an imaginary playmate, and I still carry an extremely fond memory of my mother setting another place at my tea party for my imaginary playmate rather than telling me to button up and buckle down.

Give your son some some cool independent activities like science kits or art projects that foster his independence, self esteem, and make him interesting to get to know.
posted by effluvia at 8:27 AM on September 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

What about afterschool or weekend activities that fit his general inclinations and include kids from his school (or from your neighborhood or elsewhere). And keep on with the play dates even though they are challenging to arrange, maybe ask his teacher if he thinks there would be any good matches.
posted by vunder at 8:52 AM on September 8, 2022

Best answer: Some things that work for adults would also work for your little guy.
So teach him to give a sincere compliment to someone.
Let him know about small talk and practice it with him. Let him know that friendship-making is a skill and it is just like other skills that he has already learned. There is nothing wrong with him, friend-making is hard, even for big people.
Let him practice observing people. See if he can spot someone who shares his temperament and interest.
Talk about rejection, how it's painful but how everyone gets rejected at some point, and how to deal with it.
posted by storybored at 9:01 AM on September 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

Are there after-school programs that kids at his school participate in? That might be a smaller group or a way to on-ramp to approaching those potential friends when they're both back at school. Sports is an easy one but there might be climbing or swimming or something new that he might like to try. One practical thing that might help is role playing to make sure he's sending off signals that would invite someone to approach (eye contact, smiling, waving) if he's not ready yet to make the approach himself.
posted by *s at 9:11 AM on September 8, 2022

2nding the idea about weekend/after school workshop/project-based enrichments in your town, making friends in smaller groups over a shared activity like dissecting owl pellets, lego mindstorm, community theater etc.

Also the idea of speaking to the teacher/asking the school office if they have anything to recommend.
posted by wowenthusiast at 9:37 AM on September 8, 2022

My teen child still talks about the time five years ago that he went to a friend's house and they took him out to a Chinese buffet for dinner! This blew both our minds. Never previously had a family absconded--absconded!-with my child to a restaurant. We were both thrilled.

I just wanted to add onto this as my 8yo daughter had a similar experience recently; she went to a friend's house for a spontaneous sleepover and I was so impressed by the way the other family just effortlessly folded her into their existing weekend plans. They were going to go bowling so they took her along. They had plans to visit grandma, so they took her along! And the grandma thought it was a kick to meet a new friend and set up a whole spa experience for them for the afternoon, painted their nails, had lemon water, put cucumber slices on their eyes. It sounds so dumb to type out but for some reason I had just kinda assumed it was verboten to take someone else's kid places. But the weekend made a big impression on both myself and my kid about expanded playdate possibilities.
posted by anderjen at 12:55 PM on September 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

This is really specific, but maybe the same concept could be applied toward a similar opportunity (or maybe even the same opportunity):
When my grandson was the same age as your son, a new boy joined the class. The teacher asked for a volunteer to show the new boy around the school. My grandson volunteered, and they've been close friends ever since. (They are now freshmen in high school.)
posted by SageTrail at 3:30 PM on September 8, 2022

Response by poster: Thank you all so much for the ideas and input. I marked a few best answers that had some specific good ideas that we talked though together. I also really appreciate your kind words of support, I was feeling a bit down about my parenting and somehow not equipping him for this scenario.

As a note, he was evaluated by a school psychologist (at the request of teachers last year) and given a probable diagnosis of ADHD - inattentive, with high IQ. No indication of anything on the autism spectrum. Because there wasn't a clear impact on his grades yet, they recommended behavioral and environmental interventions before medication. I have to admit though that I'm not totally clear on exactly what I should be doing to support with the interventions, I think I need to go back and discuss with the teachers and principal.
posted by ohio at 1:00 AM on September 9, 2022

I will say as the mom of a kid on the spectrum, the diagnosis doesn’t actually make any difference in how I support his social development. There is no autism treatment that changes social communication styles or makes a person more or less interested in socializing.
posted by haptic_avenger at 5:25 AM on September 9, 2022

Ohio, I found this presentation by Dr.Russell Barkley extremely helpful in understanding the nature of adhd and how it affects children and their development. It contains ideas on interventions and supports that can be implemented.

Essential Ideas for Parents
posted by fourpotatoes at 6:03 AM on September 9, 2022

I was this child. At the end of school our principal showed us all of our old report cards. Each one, and in each year, said, 'Lives in a world of his own.' Some of them added, 'but comes back occasionally to participate in class activities.' It was vastly amusing, because I'd already realized that about myself.
I don't really have any advice. I didn't really have any close friends - those I made later, people I roomed with in college, people I met at work, people I rented rooms to when I had a house that was three times as big as I needed. Most of my close friends are people I've lived with. I once lived in a small apartment building and deliberately helped everyone move in. They were all students. I'm still friends with a lot of them.
I don't know how to make friends deliberately. I don't think a parent can help. Mine tried, and I was saddled with kids I dreaded seeing. A parent has absolutely no idea what makes someone you'd like, or who you'd hate, and if they get involved it's generally bad. When it goes over the line into choosing individuals for you, it's catastrophic.
Activities help, if they're something your kid wants to do. If he's going because he has to be driven somewhere to do something, forget it. He's better off doing something he likes and seeing if he can meet other people who like that too.
The idea that you make friends in school and keep them for the rest of your life works in movies. It's not real.
There's no guarantee you'll find someone. Friendship is something you fall into.
Being in close proximity for a long period of time to people like you, and who are doing similar things, is what works for me. Some people aren't good at it. I made a conscious decision to be more outgoing and to meet people and help them move heavy objects. I also lived in a place where several other people had the same idea.
I suggest you be supportive, and let him know you enjoy his company. If he wants to learn something that will appeal to other kids, that's probably something you should support without adding pressure.

Several people have said you should get him checked for various conditions. That's okay, sort of, but please God don't put your kid on drugs because he doesn't have any close friends. Kids have enough problems figuring out the world without someone attempting to fix them on the basis of a teacher's need for an obedient class and half a dozen visits with a doctor. Especially don't take advice from helpful people on the web. I'm sorry to have to say that, but most advice comes from people pushing a certain viewpoint.
I hope I'm different, because I was that kid.
posted by AugustusCrunch at 5:34 PM on September 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

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