Sunday 25 August 2019

Dear David Coleman: I worry about my daughter's friendships as she appears disinterested and stands back from groups

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Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. My daughter is 10 and I worry about how she gets on with her peers. She stands back from groups, can appear disinterested and I think when she does try strike up a conversation, some kids don't relate to what she is saying. She is very sensitive and imaginative, but advanced in her thinking. She doesn't seem bothered by her lack of friends. I want to help her to find friends without forcing the friendships or making her feel like there is something wrong with her. Should I teach her social skills or just leave well enough alone?

David replies: Dilemmas can occur at any time in our parenting lives. If your daughter doesn't seem bothered by the state of her friendships then one option could be to leave her to it. However, at the same time, you recognise that she seems to be missing some key skills that would help her to build friendships, which, in the long run could be both helpful and important for her. Perhaps it would be best to prepare her now.

I do hear your worry about giving her a message that there is something wrong with her if you identify, for her, these social issues that you have observed. I could imagine you are concerned that you might dent her self-esteem or her self-confidence.

The fact that she doesn't seem to have any insight into the fact that she doesn't seem to relate easily, or effectively, with her peers is, of itself, noteworthy.

Often, children are very aware when they seem to make a mess of friendships, or they find that they are on the periphery of a social group.

They do often believe that they themselves are to blame for whatever shortcomings or difficulties they perceive they are having with their friends, or with their ability to even make friends.

Perhaps the fact that your daughter doesn't seem to notice that things don't always go well, or that her comments aren't often well received by other children might actually be quite protective for her, as she won't be critical of herself.

I wonder if anyone else has noticed that your daughter seems on the periphery of the groups in school or elsewhere? It might be worth going in to talk with her teacher about what he or she has observed. If the teacher has also noticed that your daughter appears isolated, or left out of things, then there may be something that the school can do.

There are many programmes (typically run by resource teachers) that schools can employ about friendship building, inclusion and so on. Often they can be carried out with a whole class, and can be very supportive of individual children who may be at risk of social exclusion and can also be supportive of a broader anti-bullying culture within a class group.

In addition to any school supports, I do think that you could help your daughter to learn and use some basic friendship building skills, without suggesting, or intimating to her, that she has a problem. It is a very natural thing for parents to coach their children on how to approach a range of social situations that they may find themselves in.

Indeed, unless we teach our children how to listen, how to show interest in others, how and when to share our own interests, they may not, instinctively, know how to do it. The best way to approach this kind of coaching is to review situations she has found herself in and to problem solve other ways she could have responded or reacted.

You can be clear that this is simply about offering alternatives, rather than criticising what she actually did.

If you remain concerned that she seems to be slipping further and further apart from her peers then if might be worth pursuing a comprehensive psychological assessment in case there is some underlying issue that makes it especially hard for her to interpret, and react to, social situations.

The benefits of an assessment, are that you will hopefully gain even more insight into why it is that your daughter's friendships don't seem to develop easily, and any intervention that you then decide might help her, will be very targeted.

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