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The back-to-school guide to helping your child make friends: ‘You might need to organise a playdate’

Encouraging children to meet up with school friends over the summer is important, says psychotherapist

Few things are more certain to crush a parent than asking their child “who did you play with today?” only to hear the reply “no one”. And who among us has not panicked upon hearing this, taken the day off work and run down to the schoolyard at break time, anticipating a scene where their beloved child is forlorn and playing all alone, only to discover them laughing their heads off, having the mightiest of fun with their classmates? Not just me, surely?

But what about when our children really are struggling to make friends, or our teens can’t seem to find their tribe? Should we, as parents, step in? Or do we need to learn to step back?

“Friendships are vitally important for a child’s maturation and development,” psychotherapist Richard Hogan explains. “It is in these early friendships that they learn important life skills like compromise, connecting with others, caring, resilience. When these early relationships are positive, they can significantly build a child’s self-esteem as they come to view themselves as valuable and worthy.”

The opposite, however, is also true. “Social rejection that can happen so easily in school can literally hurt a child. The same part of the brain fires when a child is rejected by their peers, as when a child burns their hand,” he says.


“Peer relationships become even more significant as children move into adolescence. They move away from their parents as the pillars of support, to their peer group.”

Hogan says while it’s good for children to build friendships “organically”, which can happen over the summer through local summer camps, a shy child might need some help from their parents. “You might need to contact parents and organise a playdate with someone you know is going to be in their class in September. The more people they know, the better, and the less chance of feeling awkward going into school.”

Encouraging children to meet up with their school friends over the summer is important, he explains. “The more they meet their friends, the less shy they will become. They might often need a little nudge from parents to go out and call for a friend. They might build this up as a big event in their head but once they push themselves to do that they will see that it wasn’t that big of a deal in the first place. When we notice our children are avoiding calling for friends or going out, we must help them out of that thinking by proving the logic they are running is incorrect. The more they stay in, the more their confidence will suffer.”

Teenagers generally don’t like to talk about the fact that they are struggling to make friends, but it is far more common than we would like to think

Helping teenagers with friendships is more difficult, Hogan says. “Teenagers generally don’t like to talk about the fact that they are struggling to make friends, but it is far more common than we would like to think ... It is incredible how quickly a teenager can start to flourish once they feel respected and valued by their peer group.”

Depending on the circumstances, parental involvement can help here too, Hogan explains. “If you know the parents of your child’s friend and you trust them (that is key) to keep it between you both, it might be a good idea to have a conversation with them about how your son or daughter is struggling with friendships. They might be able to encourage their child to reach out and connect with your child in a way that isn’t forced or set up.” This needs to be managed well by both sets of parents, Hogan cautions, adding: “If a child feels they are being pressurised to be friends with someone, they could push back against it.”

Hogan also says: “Encouraging your child to take part in an activity could widen their circle of friends — the more they have, the more chance they have of being invited somewhere. Children often have a narrow friendship circle and so if there is a rupture or falling out they are left with no one. It’s important to ensure this doesn’t happen, because teenagers fall out quite often.”