“I don’t have any friends. At school, everyone’s always making fun of me.” Few words are as painful to hear from a child of any age. Being unpopular during adolescence, however, can inflict deep, long-lasting psychological wounds. Youngsters who grow up as social outcasts may be more likely to misbehave, feel depressed and do poorly in school. What’s more, the damage to self-esteem can haunt them into adulthood.
When a youngster lacks friends, parents should be concerned regardless of whether she complains about her situation.
What You Can Do
Talk to her. Begin by saying that you’ve noticed that she spends a lot of time on her own, and ask if this is making her unhappy. Reassure her that many of her classmates probably feel just as uncertain of themselves as she does. It’s often effective to share a story about yourself, past or present. Kids generally assume that Mom and Dad glided through adolescence problem-free. This misconception fuels the eternal teenage cry, “You just don’t understand!” Oh yes we do, more than they’d ever imagine. Want to be a hero? Let them know how much you do understand:
“You know, honey, when I’m at business conventions, I have to make conversation with total strangers. Sometimes it comes easily to me, but other times I can’t seem to think of a single thing to say, and I get all nervous and feel like I’m going to pass out.”
Your teen may secretly be relieved that you noticed her loneliness. On the other hand, she may feel embarrassed and stubbornly deny that a problem exists. Don’t give up. Ask your child’s teachers, and any other adults who spend time around her, for their frank assessments of how she relates to others. What are her strengths and weaknesses? Does she tend to be overly shy around her peers, afraid to initiate friendships? Aggressive and bossy? Hostile and defensive? Add their input to your own observations.
Role-play different scenarios with your teen. Kids may act inappropriately in a social situation simply because they don’t know how to behave. In roleplaying, you set a scene and model socially acceptable alternatives. Concentrate on the areas where he seems to need the most help. Does he tend to stay on the sidelines and avoid group activities? Have a reputation for being a sore loser? Maybe he overreacts to teasing, as in the following example:
“Let’s say you drop a pass in touch football, and that smart-mouth kid Kevin who’s always bothering you says something sarcastic like, ‘Hey, good hands!’ Now, you could get mad and scream at him or take a swing at him, but that’s not going to win you any friends or make the other kids want to play with you. Instead, why not disarm Kevin with humor, by poking fun at yourself: ‘Yeah, I coat my hands with axle grease before every game.’
“Or you could return the insult, but with a smile on your face: ‘Gee, thanks so much for pointing that out, Kev. Love you too, dude.’
“Or you could ignore him. You really want to look cool? Keep your mind on the game and try to catch the next pass. That would be the sweetest revenge of all.
“Once you stop reacting to teasing, you take all the fun out of it. After a while, you probably won’t get teased as much.”
Play several more scenes, this time with you in the antagonist’s role and your child starring as himself. See how he does; offer positive feedback. Encourage him to try out these new responses the next time someone teases him. Follow up in a week or two to see if they made a difference.
Help your teenager improve his conversational skills. Most children who don’t fare well with peers are sensitive about their social limitations. They’re so used to editing themselves (What do I say to him? What if I sound stupid? ), that they often develop the equivalent of stage fright and say nothing at all.
Few of us are naturally gifted raconteurs, but the art of communication can be learned. The keys to being a good conversationalist are curiosity and generosity—inquiring about other people’s lives and interests, then giving them your undivided attention. There’s one subject that everyone is an authority on and will talk about endlessly: themselves. This is particularly true of adolescents.
Plan structured, pressure-free activities. For a youngster who feels socially inept, just hanging out at home with a friend can be stressful. To ease his anxiety and to help everyone have a better time, his parents will need to supervise these casual get-togethers more closely than is normally necessary.
Ask your teen if he would like to invite a friend over on a weekend afternoon for some structured activity. Dr. Jellinek, a father of four, suggests taking them to a movie, the ballet, the circus, a zoo, a museum, a sporting event—“anything that deflects the one-to-one time between the child and his friend.” Sitting side by side as spectators gives kids something to talk about during and afterward, but eliminates the need for constant conversation.
If you’re looking for something physical for them to do together, choose a noncompetitive pastime that plays to your child’s strengths and promotes sharing and cooperation. Avoid solitary activities or those that involve large groups. Examples include bike riding, ice-skating, in-line skating, rowing or canoeing, skateboarding, snowboarding, skiing, swimming, golf and martial arts.
Err on the side of making the activity too short rather than too long. Right now, the goal is to help your child relax and have fun, and to establish a pattern of successful relationships. “Once your teen begins to feel more comfortable dealing with free time,” Dr. Jellinek continues, “you gradually withdraw the structure. For instance, if the movie goes well, you might try giving him money to go to the shopping mall for an hour or two with his friend—not six hours. Then you might suggest that they go out together for a bite to eat. You also gradually encourage them to increase the time that they spend together.”
Enlist the cooperation of teachers, coaches, camp counselors and group activity leaders such as scoutmasters. Describe your teenager’s difficulties with socializing, and request that they pay a little extra attention to her. If you’ve discovered some strategies that seem to help your youngster in group situations, let them know, and ask that they keep you apprised of her progress.
Encourage your teen to join a club or group activity that appeals to him, whether it’s through the school system or through religious or community organizations. There he’s more likely to meet kids who share a common interest or purpose—always a promising foundation for new friendships.
Do not force a child to participate in an activity against his will. The goal is to set him up for success.
Seek the help of a professional. A number of child psychologists, psychotherapists and counselors specialize in social-skills development, with sessions conducted one-on-one or in a small group. Approaches vary somewhat, but most programs employ many of the techniques described here, such as role-playing. One benefit of the group setting is that the youngsters learn from and root for one another. Friendships often bloom, which in itself is therapeutic. For some kids, the social-skills group provides the support and acceptance that’s been missing from their lives.
Your child’s pediatrician may be able to refer you to professionals trained in this area. Or, call around to local mental-health providers and ask if they offer social-skills instruction. Ideally, the boys and girls in the group should be no more than two years apart in age.