“Who did you play with today?” I asked my daughter as we walked home from school. “Nobody,” she replied, picking at the frayed ends of her scarf. “Really? Why not? Didn’t anyone want to play with you?” “They did,” she assured me. “But they didn’t want to play what I wanted to play. So I said no.”
This was a fairly frequent occurrence in the early days, and it worried me. I had images of my daughter sitting alone and friendless at break times. Wistfully watching the other kids as they ran and laughed together, wishing she could join in. So I spoke to her teacher – and found out this wasn’t the case.
She simply wasn’t a kid who needed to be part of the crowd. If they were doing something she wanted to do, she’d join in. If they wanted to play her games, she welcomed them. But she was quite happy to do her own thing.
She had friends and was keen on getting involved in things she liked – singing lessons, after-school clubs for drama, art and Spanish. We realised there wasn’t a problem – she just preferred to go her own way.
Some children, though, are real loners – and it can be a concern. No parent wants to think their child is unpopular or unhappy. They might seem ok on the surface, but what if that’s just an act? Or maybe you know it isn’t. Maybe your kid longs to get involved but is too shy to reach out. Or perhaps they don’t want to be part of the big, rowdy, popular crowd but would like a smaller circle of friends they can hang out with quietly.
If you suspect either of these is the case, these tips might help.
1Talk to them
This is the most important thing you can do – establishing how they view their world. I was worried my daughter was lonely and friendless, whereas she was quite happy with the way things were. She mixed when she wanted to but was also happy in her own company (which isn’t a bad thing).
You need to know if that’s not the case, though. If your child wants more friends or is desperate to feel part of things, they’ll need your help.
Maybe your child prefers reading Tolkien to watching the latest Marvel film. A friend’s daughter asked me if she was ‘weird’ because she’s obsessed with how motor vehicles work and doesn’t like playing with dolls.
We need to not only push back against stereotypes, but make sure our children know that it’s ok – good, even – not to conform. They need to know they are loved and accepted, and that whoever they are is just fine by us.
3Put the word out
If you’re trying to help your child make new friends, you need to literally ask around. We’d bet they’re not the only kid in the neighbourhood who enjoys Japanese manga – but you might need to make an effort to find the others.
Talk to schoolteachers, other parents, your own friends and neighbours. If they know someone, most will be only too happy to help you make the initial contact. Your child may or may not make a new best friend, but it could open up a whole new world for them.
4A question of sport
Team sports can be a source of anxiety for quieter kids. There’s so much pressure to perform. Score that winning goal and you’re hailed a hero. But drop a vital catch and you’re humiliated and embarrassed.
Your child might prefer individual activities such as swimming or gymnastics. They’re not letting anyone down and can improve at their own pace. If your child’s school insists on some form of team activity and it’s causing real issues, it’s worth talking to them about possible alternatives.
5Be subtle about play-dates
If your child makes a new friend or finds someone who shares their obscure interest, it’s tempting to progress their relationship as quickly as possible. Slow down! If it’s going to be a real friendship, it will develop naturally – it shouldn’t be forced.
Give both sides time to make up their minds. Whether you arrange a get-together somewhere neutral or invite them to your home, set a time-limit. They’ll soon let you know if they want to extend it. And if they don’t hit it off, that’s fine. Just move on.