My son is 13 and in Year 8 at secondary school and although he is doing well academically, he has made few new friends compared to other children. I am worried that he is lonely. What can I do to help him?
It's understandable that you are worried. No parent wants their child to be Billy-no-mates. We all love our kids to bits and it's unsettling to assume that not everyone else feels the same. We tend to think that the number of friends our children have is an indication of their popularity – and if they don't have many we immediately think, "Help! What's the problem?"
So before you step in, it might be worth being sure he is unhappy. Child educational psychologist Teresa Bliss suggests, "Find out if your child needs more friends." You need to be sure that your son is unhappy with the situation. It's so easy for us to think that having only a few friends equates to being unhappy. Some children - and adults- are very happy with one or two friends, and simply don't need more.
Do you have evidence that he is unhappy? This can be really tricky: how many 13-year-old boys are going to confide in mum that they are unhappy? Are there any other signs?
Teresa suggests that some children who find it hard to make friends have poor social skills, which can make it hard for them to interact. She advises, "Help your child develop empathy with others, by giving empathetic responses yourself." For instance, if your child comes home and tells you about something that happened say how that makes you feel - and ask how they feel about it.
This is especially important with boys, whose brains, according to Teresa, are less developed than girls when it comes to expressing emotions. Boys need to learn how to express emotions - or they grow up as men who can't do this.
What about lunch time and after-school clubs? This is a good way of making friends with other children who he would not normally see in lessons. Even if your son is not sporty, there are usually lots of other activities on offer, so have a chat about what he might enjoy.
It can be pretty daunting for a shy child to go along to a club alone. If - as I used to do with my daughter - you can reassure them that they only have to try it once or twice, then can drop it if it's not for them, that can take away some of the fear.
I wonder if your son's school has a peer mentoring scheme. This is where an older child is linked to a younger child to help them either with academic work or friendships.
Have you thought about talking to his form teacher? If they know your concerns, you can work together to help your son integrate more.
Making friends out of school is another option. Linda Appleby, a former secondary school teacher and mum of three boys, suggests that if you can support out of school activities, these can be a great source of new friends. So if a child has a bad day at school, having friends out of school can make all the difference to how they feel.
Kids' Coach Naomi Richards suggests, "Encourage your son to invite children home after school, but suggest he invites new people along too." This will help him expand his social circle in a non-threatening way.
Developing your son's self-esteem will help him feel good about himself. Raising your child's self-esteem by praising them for what they do - rather than what they are not doing - is the fastest way to increase their confidence. And self-confident people tend to attract friends. Praise him for even small achievements, such as getting up on time, or remembering his homework.
Finally, and this is hard I know, try not to let him know you are anxious, which will only make him feel worse. Remember too that he has his own personality and he may be happy with the few friends he has.
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