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May 25, 2021

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 41

How Do I Help My Kid Find Friends Again?

Episode 41

The pandemic has disrupted our kids’ social lives. What can parents do to help a child make new friends if they’ve withdrawn from their peers? How do we help kids who are reluctant to reach out, or who rub their classmates the wrong way? A mom emails about her twelve and a half-year-old daughter who was once an extrovert and now is not. Dr. Lisa explains the five categories that have been identified by research to describe kids’ social profiles, and how knowing these categories helps us give children the right kind of support. Should parents try to engineer friendships? Lisa has a strong opinion on this topic while Reena asks how we can help kids find secure friendships as we emerge from Covid-19.

May 25, 2021 | 29 min

Transcript | How Do I Help My Kid Find Friends Again?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 41: How Do I Help my Kid Find Friends Again?


The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.


REENA: So, I feel like finally there are some things pre-pandemic that are returning back into our lives again.


LISA: Yeah, yeah.


REENA: We talked a little bit about sibling rivalries. That’s coming back strong.


LISA: That’s been going strong the whole time.


REENA: That’s true. We never lost that.


LISA: Maybe we’re just at a point where we can hardly take it anymore.


REENA: You’re right. Such a good point. But it’s nice to see you know kids getting back with their friends, we’re talking birthday parties, which we weren’t really months ago. We got a letter from a parent who’s talking about finding friends. You know we’ve been so isolated, you think about the impact it has on children and this parent writes: ‘Dear, Lisa, you’ve been so helpful throughout this pandemic, and I’m hopeful that you can help advise me now. My 12-and-a-half-year-old daughter is in the seventh grade at a new school this year. When school opened up I insisted that she go back in person for social reasons. In school she reports that she’s always alone. She doesn’t know anyone. She carries a book with her at all times. I can only imagine her loneliness when masked. She can’t smile at others or see smiles from them. There is very little opportunity to interact safely. On her end, she’s completely changed in personality. This is a child who has always been so outgoing and would often overwhelm other children with a friendly inclusive manner as she was growing up. She made friends easily and was well liked. Now, it’s impossible to get her out the door to engage others. I feel like COVID has destroyed her social development and I don’t know how to help her. I need her back. Please help me with my kid. It is so painful to watch. A frustrated mom.’ God this just hurts to read.


LISA: It does. Actually it does, and I’ve got to tell you, Reena, as you’re reading it I’m like, okay this is my nightmare scenario, right?


REENA: Why nightmare?


LISA: Nightmare, okay, new school, seventh grade, COVID.


REENA: A lot of whammies in one.


LISA: Such a lot of whammies, right? Seventh grade is so hard under ideal conditions in terms of finding one’s new life.


REENA: Totally.


LISA: And I mean can you imagine starting seventh grade at a new school under ideal conditions?


REENA: You’re right.


LISA: Totally horrible, and then, you know I get the sense from this letter that it was relatively recently that they finally were even able to go back to school. So, now there’s all this water under the bridge of this super weird year, and now kids are going to try to find friends at this point in the game? And it’s heartbreaking. Heartbreaking.


REENA: But isn’t it crazy? This wasn’t a silent kid. The mom saying, oh my god she was so outgoing. She had so much energy, it was hard to like ramp it down was sense of getting from this? What does she do now and how does the kid go from that?


LISA: Oh man, oh man. Okay, so okay when I feel a little overwhelmed by the realities of life I go to the literature. I go to the research. Like what do we know?


REENA: I love that.


LISA: It does help me. It’s using intellectualization as a defense to manage really, really painful things, and hopefully bring it back to a heartfelt and useful place. Okay, so the nice thing is we know at some level this kid has had the skills in the past, but she has become very withdrawn and is having a very hard time plugging in for reasons that are both context driven, and also, what this mom describes so beautifully, the kid’s not helping herself either, you know, if you’ve always got your nose in a book, and you’re walking around, and you’re not trying to engage, it’s not going to help the situation get better. Okay, so, Reena, I want to tell you about this research that has been going on for decades in the field about different kinds of social configurations or different kinds of social categories that we can put kids in because when we think about that research what it does is it actually helps us to diagnose the problem very precisely and then actually once it’s best diagnosed, well diagnosed, then to come up with the right intervention, Okay, you ready for this?


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: Okay, so this research, it’s a big complex body of research. I am going to distill it. I’m going to lose nuance, but I want to share it because it’s really fascinating. For years and years we’ve studied what kids think of one another, how they categorize the peers they want to spend time with and don’t want to spend time with, and one way that this research is gone down is to go to an entire class of kids, give the kids privately a roster of everyone in their class, and basically say, put a checkmark next to the kids you like. Put a star next to the kids you actually don’t like, that are not your favorite, and then we collect these data from them, and then we collate it all, and what drops out or five categories of kids, which is kind of amazing. It’s like an interesting methodology and it really clarifies something. Okay, so here are the five categories. So the first is popular, and that’s a kid where a lot of kids in the class checked like, I like this kid. Okay for parents who have the kid, they’ve got nothing to worry about right now, like my kid will plug back in and be okay. Then there are kids who are controversial, which is an interesting I love that label because it’s so perfect for this, which is that they both got check marks and stars. You know some kids were like, yeah I really like this kid. Other kids were like, eh not so keen on this kid, you know, and they got a decent number of this. The third category, and actually, controversial kids actually just to rest on that for a minute, socially, I’m not that worried about them either. These are kids who are on other kids’ radars, have people who like them, and I think mostly going to be able to sort out the details of restarting a social life after after the pandemic. A third category, and a lot of kids fall in this category and if your kids in this category this is terrific, is what they basically called average, which is, you know, they weren’t very high profile, like a couple kids said, yeah I really like this kid, maybe a couple kids said, eh not my cup of tea, but they had friends, and they were sort of middle of the pack. You know they had one or two friends, but they weren’t popular, they weren’t controversial, but they had friends. Okay, now we get to the two categories we really worry about. One is rejected kids. Kids who got a lot of stars, where a lot of kids in the class were like, that kid rubs me the wrong way. So, we worry about these kids, and we’ll want to think about what to do for those kids, and then the last, and this is where this kiddo from this letter belongs, is what we called the collected kids, which are kids like no one’s checking or starring their name. They’re just sort of invisible to their peers and those are the kids we worry about all the time, and those are the kids that coming out of the pandemic we really want to think about how to help them.


REENA: When you say neglected kids I think of kids whose parents are alcoholics, gone MIA are those neglected kids or can they be kids where the parent is still supportive, but there are other issues?


LISA: It’s the latter, you know, usually when we use the term neglected we mean the kids you’re talking about, where their parents are not able to care for them well. In this case what we mean is socially neglected. They’re not on anybody’s radar, they’re just not part of any mix, and that’s what this girl is, this sweet seventh grader, and you describe her mom. Like her mom’s trying, her mom’s aware, her mom’s thinking.




LISA: So it happens like that sometimes.


REENA: Wow, it’s so interesting to hear you you talk about that, but at this point what should this mom do? I mean she’s writing to us. She’s concerned she’s beautifully outlined the problem and isolated it. I mean this mom couldn’t be any more on. Where does she go from here, Lisa?


LISA: Okay, so what do we do for neglected kids? There are things we can do, and this is where it’s good, like there’s places where parents can intervene meaningfully, coach meaningfully, so the first thing we have to remember is you don’t make friends you find friends. You know, Reena, it’s just like you find your people and you can’t just decide like, I’m going to make friends with that person. It doesn’t work like that. You have to really find the spark in somebody that matches the spark in you and then there’s a friendship. So, for kids like this what works really well is to try to get a whole bunch of other kids into their traffic patterns.So you up the odds that they’re going to find their person or their people. But even one friend is so great and such a big improvement over zero friends. It doesn’t have to be a big group. So, when I think about this kiddo or kiddos like her and the summer coming, what I would say is try to put as many kids as possible in their traffic patterns. So, if there’s a summer camp they can do, if there’s volunteering in your community they can do, if your neighborhood has kids running around. Like if there’s a way your kid can just sort of be outside when that is happening. If there’s a theater program. I often find theater programs are really effective for kids like thi,  and part of what I love about theater programs is, you know this doesn’t sound like a front stage kid at least not right now, but there’s backstage stuff , there’s technical stuff, there’s building sets, there’s all sorts of fantastic things, and so you can be a quiet kid even in the theater program and start to find your people so that would be the first step is just put this kid out in situations where there’s a lot of other kids near or around, they’re structured activities so she doesn’t have to make small talk, there’s stuff that’s got to be done, there’s stuff the kids are doing, but create the conditions where she’s more likely to find a friend.


REENA: You’ve taken us to step one. I want to ask you about engineering friendships. Lisa, is that a good idea?


LISA: So by engineering friendship, you know, what we often mean is like, oh my kid’s so isolated, you know, this lady I work with has a fantastic 12-year-old, I’ll have them all over, you know, and then we’ll get them together and there may be some spark. With little kids you have a shot at this. Once, I think, you’re into sixth, certainly seventh, eighth or ninth, I wouldn’t put much stock in it, and I’d be very cautious about it.


REENA: Really?


LISA: Yeah because here’s the problem. I mean you remember being a seventh grader, right? And you remember when your folks were like, oh the neighbor child seems really nice. Why don’t you have them over? And you’re like no.


REENA: Yea. Never a good idea.


LISA: Kiss of death. Total kiss of death. And then, of course, what’s worse, right? I mean if you actually think through the situation, say that this kiddo who, you know, is basically randomly selected. There’s nothing that makes you think this is going to be a good match, comes over and then it goes badly, and everybody’s sort of sitting around twiddling their thumbs and looking at each other weird. That does not help a kid who is already feeling shaky socially gain more confidence. So, I think it’s more about the traffic pattern stuff. I think it’s more about putting kids in their path. I think it’s more about that happening, like I said, when there’s other stuff that they can do to focus on or work collaboratively. That can grease the wheels of being together and getting connected.


REENA: So, while you can’t engineer, should we coach them? How do we talk to them about this?


LISA: I think we can. I think we can. I think there’s good coaching to be done on the neglected kids, kids who are having a hard time plugging in. So, one thing I would have this mom say to her daughter in the gentlest way is, cutie, if you’ve got your nose in a book at school, you’re not giving anyone a fighting chance. You know, I want you to try to make eye contact with people or be near people or, you know, be warm in any way you can. You know, is there anyone that you, you know, who else is sitting in the lunchroom? Is there anyone else there who is sitting, you know, that doesn’t have somebody they’re sitting with, or is there a group that seems gentle that you could ask if you could join. So, they do need help often taking that first step, and if they’re a sophisticated kid, it’s a pretty cognitively sophisticated kid, well we can say to them is people want to be friends with people who make them feel good, and you need to send signals to people that make them feel welcome, feel invited, feel drawn towards you. If you’re sending what are essentially go away signals, people are going to go away, and that can be a beginning conversation to help kids think about the power they have for how they enter a situation.


REENA: You’ve talked about neglected kids. Tell me a little about rejected kids. Who are they? What really works for them?


LISA: They are actively doing things that are rubbing other kids the wrong way. You know, so neglected kids are just not, no one’s paying attention to them, and our job is to help them sort of make themselves more visible and get where they can see other kids and other kids can see them. Rejected kids, kids know them, right? And they’re like, no, that kid is annoying, and what’s interesting, Reena, is there’s a pretty common list of the things that rejected kids are doing that create trouble for them socially.


REENA: Really? What’s on that list?


LISA: Yeah, yeah. So, okay, so obviously meanness, right? If you’re mean, that’s not going to help you, especially if you don’t have a lot of social charisma, right? That probably the more controversial kids are both charismatic and also occasionally mean. Whereas, rejected kids might just be mean, and so kids are like, I’m not dealing with that, but it could also be things that are more in the department of being, you know, intrusive, you know, kind of busting in on conversations or speaking over other kids. It can be things like not managing personal space, you know, how there are kids who just take up a lot of space and they’re in your bubble?


REENA: Oh yes.


LISA: And you might not even mind that kid so much, but you’re like, dude, back it up. So there’s that. There can also be things like they tattle, you know, that they’re going and getting a grown up around stuff, which basically by second grade you can’t do that anymore and still be getting along well. I mean you could do it maybe occasionally on big stuff, but for the most part by second and third and fourth grade going and getting the teacher when you’re unhappy, socially isn’t going to really make things work well with your peers. So, part of what we have to do is to try to help these kids reign those behaviors in, and often if they can reign those behaviors in, things get better.


REENA: So tell me about rejected kids, what else should we know?


LISA: They sometimes get sort of pigeon holed by their peers. You know, one of the challenges with a kid who has, you know, been struggling with impulse control, maybe has rubbed kids the wrong way a fair bit, is their peers can lose patience with them. They can get tired of it, and so even if they have a pretty good day or even a pretty good week, as soon as they go back to the one and only thing that they did, their classmates can give up on them pretty quickly, and so one thing that makes a huge difference, it’s actually kind of amazing, is to give these kids an all new setting. One thing I’ve seen, and this is under normal conditions, but we can actually use the pandemic well here, I have seen kids who had a very rejected year, where they really just, you know, they couldn’t get it right with their peers and their peers kind of just pushed them to the side, and then I’ve seen that kid do something like a summer camp or a summer program where they had a totally clean slate. Nobody knew them, nobody came in with a preconceived notion about them, and in that space they were able to try out different sides of themselves, practice getting along with kids without already having dug themselves into a deep hole, I think sometimes a parent in that condition might actually say to the camp counselor, my kid’s great but she can kind of get on other’s kid’s nerves. You know you feel free to give her real time coaching if you see anything that you think would make a difference for her. I think coming from somebody who’s not a parent in a gentle way can matter. But what’s neat is in those fresh settings without all of this history, they can live into different parts of their personality, have those start to feel pretty authentic and good and real to them, and then come back and actually begin again with old classmates. It’s pretty cool.


REENA: Oh, you’re saying this summer could be a period to reset, and then they come back with this renewed confidence and different mindset that could help them in the old school setting?


LISA: It can, and the way I like to think about it almost is like repertoire, right? That we all have our social repertoires and for a kid who’s been rejected their repertoire, you know, it was it was bothering everybody.


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: And then, of course, even if they try to change repertoires, kids are like, yeah we got the drop on you, we know how you operate, and so they don’t even give them much room to try out a new repertoire. Whereas, if they’re in a brand new social setting, and maybe have loving adults there who can help with some, you know, redirection, they can actually start to build up a repertoire that then becomes theirs, and comes back to school with them, and works really quite well.


REENA: So, what do you suggest that we as parents do to help with this?


LISA: Okay, let me start with what not to do because it can be tempting, especially if you’re really worried about your kid, I would say what not to do is to give them direct feedback on what you’ve observed them do with other kids if you think it might be painful to them. So, you know, it might be the case where you know you look out your window and you’re seeing the neighborhood kids and you can see your kid, you know, kind of in somebody’s space, or you can tell that they’re interrupting or overwhelming their peers. As much as we might want to when they come back in, I would be very cautious about being like, buddy, I was looking through the window and like you’re not respecting kids’ personal space, or I can tell that they’re talking and you’re talking over them. It might be really well meaning, but that can be painful, and it may not, may not land in a way that’s effective. If you know your kid and they can take it, you know, do it carefully and consider doing it, but what I would say instead is they’re probably doing with you what they’re doing with their peers, and as adults you kind of accommodate your kid, you get accustomed to your kid? You get used to how they interact? What I would say, Reena, is I would up the bar a little bit. You know if your kid isn’t respecting personal space with you, you know, if they’re all over you and they’re old enough to know differently, that’s a place where you might say, hey, cutie, you know, I love you. You know I want to snuggle. Here’s something I’m going to give you some coaching on. We’re pretty close, and though it’s okay with me, I want you to be mindful of the kind of space you give other people, maybe your classmates. I want you to watch your other classmates in terms of how close they get to each other, because well this is all right with me, if this is going on with your peers that’s going to be hard for them. They’re going to feel like they don’t have enough space. So, it can be gentle based on what’s transpired between the two of you and you’re just making, you know, kind of vague recommendations, but you’re not saying, whoa, I watched you with that kid and I could see why, you know, they’re not calling.


REENA: I want to go back to this mom’s letter because you know what disturbed me, and almost, I have to say, scared me, was she said that her child was completely changed in personality. She was so outgoing before, made friends easily, and was really well liked. Now, she says, it’s impossible to get her out the door to gauge her. Now do we as parents when you’ve seen your child transform or to change it not for the best in this pandemic, what’s your advice to parents who are struggling with this?


LISA: It’s a good one, and of course in listening to this, I do think like, is this kid depressed? Is this sort of gotten to a level where there’s depression, and, you know, I don’t really know, and we can’t really know. if there’s more reason to think that I would say you know check in with your pediatrician, but what I would say is they’re really out of practice, and it is good to know that there was a time in this child’s life where she was very comfortable socially, and so I wonder if part of how a parent might approach this child, or another kid who feels like they don’t know what to do, it doesn’t feel like themselves anymore, is if we just use those words to say, look, you’ve done this before. You can do this. You’re just really out of practice with doing this. You know it would be like if you played a game every single day and then didn’t play it for a year, you know, the first time you come back to it you’re not going to feel so sure of yourself, but once you get back into it, the skills will return, and, Reena, the reason I think we need to remind kids of this to give them some perspective of like they’ve done this before, they can do it again is that when you’re 12, you know, like this kiddo is, a year is a really, really long time. You know 14 months in a pandemic? Like think of the percentage of this kid’s life.


REENA: That’s true.


LISA: And so like she really may not have any perspective that she can do this, she has done this, you can do it again, she’s had practice, she feels rusty. So, for kids who feel like they’re pretty dramatically changed, what I would say to parents is trust that your kid can change back, kids live up to expectations and down to expectations, and so if you, you know, set the expectation like, I think you can get this all back, let’s put you in conditions where you can get this all back, I think that’s the direction that can help move things where we want them to go.


REENA: That’s good. Don’t don’t give up hope. That’s really good.


LISA: No, no.


REENA: I love that. So, what’s the big takeaway, Lisa? We’re re-emerging, right? This is going to be an interesting summer. We’re all trying to get back together again. If your kid is socially isolated, doesn’t have friends, what should parents really keep in mind? What’s the big picture?


LISA: Honestly, Reena, kids need one friend. That’s really for me what it’s about. Like if your kid is neglected and has no friends, if your kid is rejected and has no friends, like to me that’s on fire. That’s on fire. The gap between one friend and zero friends, in my life, in how I think about this as a psychologist, that’s a Grand Canyon. So, if you’re worried about your kid it’s not about helping them build a broad social network. it’s helping them find one person just to get started where they feel connected and accepted. That is a huge triumph if it builds from there a little bit, that’s fantastic, if it doesn’t that’s okay too, but kids need friends. Kid need friends it doesn’t matter how they get along with their family, it doesn’t matter how well they are admired by teachers, kids need to have at least one agemate who they feel is a good buddy.


REENA: That’s great. I’m glad we’re having this conversation, especially now as the summer’s starting, and to hear you can fix this. This is fixable. Don’t lose hope. I love that. I love that. And we’ve got a book giveaway for today.


LISA: We do actually, so there’s a book I have long recommended to families when they have a kiddo who’s in that kind of neglected, rejected department, and it’s called “The Science of Making Friends: Helping Socially Challenged Teens and Young Adults” Find Love”, and it’s by Elizabeth Laugeson. It’s so smart, Reena, it’s so smart because it’s realistic. It’s about how do you enter a conversation? How do you keep the conversation going? And she gets it. It’s smart. It’s useful. So, let’s give away a copy of this.


REENA: I love that. That’s so great, and it’s also a great reminder for everybody that we all need a little education and a little extra boos sometimes when thinking about these issues, so thank you for that book. That’s great.


LISA: Yeah, so folks should head over to our Instagram page if they’re looking for details on how to enter this book giveaway. It’s a really good book.


REENA: Sounds great, and would you have for us for parenting to go?


LISA: Well one thing that I have found interesting in the literature of looking at kids and their friends is that being popular is actually overrated.


REENA: Really?


LISA: Yeah. So, when we look at kids who have a lot of social ties what we see is, you know, maybe they’re envied by their peers because they have a lot of social ties, but it’s pretty stressful having a lot of friendships that you’re trying to maintain, especially across different groups or even within the same group can be a bit of a workout. The kids can feel like they’re not quite sure where their loyalties belong, you know, if I say yes to this thing I’m saying no to that kid and it feels crummy, or kids who were in larger social groups, you know, invariably, Reena, if you get more than like two or three kids together like not everyone in the group likes each other equally.


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: You know, you’ve got kids who are caught between peers who disagree, and it’s a workout. It’s tiring. And so what I would say to parents is the parenting to go is if your kid’s popular like, yay, and also be ready for that to be kind of tiring for them. Be prepared for that to be kind of demanding, and if there’s one or two good friends, like you won the lottery. Like don’t ask about hanging out with other kids, like stand back and let them hang out either one or two good friends. That’s pretty much the best configuration we see.


REENA: I wish I knew this in high school, not being the popular kid has its advantages.


LISA: Absolutely.


REENA: I’ll see you next week, Lisa?


LISA: See you next week.


The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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