Friendships are really important for kids. Friendships help kids learn social skills. They help kids learn to identify feelings and ways of responding to them. Friendships are a source of fun and memories for kids.
I've worked with parents who are sad, worried, and heartbroken because their child doesn't seem to have any, or many, friends. Parents start to attach stories to these observations. They worry that their kids are being bullied. They worried that their kids are lonely. They worry that their children are sad and feeling left out. For a parent, seeing their child have only a few, or worse, no, friends is a great heartbreak.
It doesn't have to be heartbreaking. Sometimes children with few friends are just shy and introverted. Their preference is for solitude. They enjoy being alone and doing quiet things. They aren't looking out a window longingly, watching neighbors playing and wishing they could be outside. They usually know they could join in if they wanted to. They are just grateful that they don't have to because their preference is to be inside doing something they enjoy.
So, how can you tell if your child is shy or struggling?
Plain and simple, kids who are struggling with friendships often look like they are struggling. They are talking about other kids and what they are doing or not doing. You might notice that your child is reaching out and other kids aren't reaching back. You might start getting reports from school that your child is having difficulty with peers. You might observe more impulsivity, frustration, and irritability with your child. Watching your child with other kids, you might just observe something that can only be defined as "awkward." These are all signs that your child is trying really hard at making friends and having little success.
I am going to talk to you in my next entry about helping kids who are struggling socially so stay tuned. Hint: Subscribe to my blog in the upper right corner and it will land directly in your inbox.
For today, we're going to talk about kids who are not struggling. They seem calm and content. Their body posture is relaxed. They may not talk too much but they don't seem tense, sad, or disappointed. They seem at ease with themselves. Usually, they are more at ease with themselves than their parents are watching them!
If the milk hasn't even spilled, there is no reason to be sad.
If you're worried about your son or daughter, you're likely talking to him/her about it. Do you sense sadness? Do they seem disappointed? If not, don't attach those stories on to them. If they are good with their level of social interaction, work with yourself to be ok, too. No need getting sad if they seem content and happy with their lives.
Your child may have a preference to be home when "everyone else is out playing." Before you attach a social problem onto your child, rethink the problem a bit. Your child is happy and content being home? He or she likes spending time with you? Your child seems to be having a good time hanging out with the family? How is that a bad thing? Odds are, you have created a family space that is loving, nurturing, and happy. An environment like this sets any child, shy or not, up for success. It makes sense that your child would be happy there, too. Don't question it.
Friendships are only one way kids learn about relationships.
Yes, friendships can be amazing opportunities. Kids can learn about sharing, taking turns, conflict resolution, and a whole host of other things. They have opportunities to test out their feelings and ways of reacting to them. I don't argue any of this.
However, kids can still learn and grow in these areas, even if they are introverts. In fact, introversion can usually help kids become more emotionally intelligent as introverts are commonly really good observers. School provides them with plenty of social opportunities. So do sports, boy scouts, girl scouts, camp, or after school programs. Kids can learn about feelings by reading about them in stories, observing what they see in the world around them, and engaging in social settings where they are more comfortable. We live in a social world and your child will not be lacking in opportunity for social or emotional development, even if their preference is to be away from other kids.
Set your child up for success.
When parents start to worry about their child's level of social interaction, the first thing they start to do is problem solve. They start arranging playdates, scheduling sports activities, and arranging family outings, all in a misguided attempt to fix a problem that is only a problem to them. When shy kids sense this, they retreat more into themselves. They don't feel understood or accepted and worry about being forced to change. They see your sadness and worry and their focus becomes easing that, rather than paying attention to themselves.
Take stock of your child. What does he or she like to do? When do you see him/her happiest? Where is he/she the most successful? Paying attention to where your child is successful will help you create more opportunities for your child to experience this success. When kids are moving within their preference, they are more comfortable observing and learning from others. They learn about empathy. They see how other people interact. They not only engage to the extent that they are comfortable doing so but they also become more willing to try new things and take more risks because of their interest in the activity.
Give up on forcing your kids to be social.
Since I was a kid, I have hated peas. Hated them. People have told me that I "just haven't has them the right way." Some have said that I just need to have them "fresh from the garden." Others have said "frozen are much better than canned." To each of them I say "Nope! Nope! and Nope!" I just don't like peas and I cannot be talked into liking them.
I bet you can see where I am going with this. Hop on. I promise it's going to be ok.
You cannot force social interaction and friendship onto your child and expect him/her to like it. Forced interactions cause anxiety, mistrust, and doubt. No one will warm up in that kind of environment. When you decide you know what is best for your child and thrust it upon them, you are playing the power card. As a parent, you may get what you want but at a high cost. You'll cut off dialogue, shut your child down, and create an environment where being social is scary.
Time to stop thinking that you know what is best for your child socially and start listening to your child.
Be on your child's team.
If you join with your shy or introverted child on his/her preferences, they will be more likely to ask for help when they need it. If kids know it's ok for them to be shy, they'll talk about times when being shy or introverted is hard. They'll be open to your support, and yes, problem-solving. Once they know it's ok for them to be the way they are, they are more willing to try new things and take new risks.
Call or email me if you find yourself worried about your shy kid.
With just one consultation, I can provide you with the tools you need to help your shy child shine and prosper.
Next up: Helping parents of kids who are struggling socially.