Julie’s heart sank when she saw her son, Max, sitting alone at recess again. Her little boy struggled to connect with his peers, leaving him feeling lonely and isolated.
She felt helpless!
She didn’t know how to support him.
Every day, Julie dropped her son off at school with a heavy heart, hoping that today would be when he found that sense of belonging he desperately needed.
Does your special needs child make friends easily?
If not, I hope to help you change that.
Importance of Friendship for Children With Special Needs
Moving to a new place or starting a new school as a child can be scary in and of itself, but for a child with special needs, it can be downright terrifying.
Forming crucial friendship bonds with peers is one of the essential building blocks to appropriate social skills, but it might be hard for your child to find other children that will accept him for who he is.
Why are friendships even important?
– Social support
Friends provide emotional support and a sense of belonging, which can be especially important for children with special needs who may feel isolated or misunderstood.
– Improved social skills
Friendships offer opportunities to practice social skills, such as communication, problem-solving, and conflict resolution, which can help children improve their social abilities.
– Increased self-esteem
Positive social interactions and the feeling of being accepted by others can increase a child’s self-esteem and confidence.
– Reduced anxiety
Friendship can reduce feelings of anxiety in children with special needs, who may be more prone to this due to the challenges they face.
– Enhanced academic performance
Research has shown that children with close friendships tend to perform better academically than those without close friendships.
Overall, friendships are essential for children with special needs to thrive socially, emotionally, and academically.
#1 First Step In Helping Your Child Make Friends
You may not even be aware your child doesn’t have friends. One question that comes up often during parent-teacher conferences is how their child is doing socially.
Some parents are astonished to hear that their child sits alone at lunch or plays alone at recess.
– Talk About It
First things first, talk to your child about the idea of making new friends. Don’t be afraid to address it head-on.
Your child is likely thinking about it, even if they don’t realize, or fail to mention it, so open up the conversation.
Let your child know that you are aware of what they may be feeling and, maybe most importantly, that it is completely normal and okay to feel that way.
– Share a Story
Now that you’ve opened up the conversation, share a story about a time you had to make new friends, either as a kid or even as an adult.
And don’t be afraid to share a story about a time when it didn’t go as you’d hoped – but just be sure to share what you did to make it better, too.
It’s often helpful for your child to feel they are not alone in how they are feeling AND for them to have some background in what you did or didn’t do when you were trying to make new friends.
– Daily Chats
As a parent, you will see your children each day when they leave and come home from school. One way that you can talk to them about friends is by having daily chats.
Daily chats are just conversations with your child about their friends and how their day was at school, before and after care, or at the park.
– Discussing Disagreements
Most children, as they are making friends or getting older, will have disagreements with their friends.
It is important to make sure that children know what to do when they have disagreements with their friends.
Some of these disagreements may be small or big. However, you can go over things with them that may help them to better cope or solve a disagreement in the future.
– Revisit It
Finally, don’t forget to revisit this conversation and continually check with your child on how they’re feeling.
Ask specific questions. For example, rather than saying, “So, how do you feel about your friends at school,” ask something more specific.
Examples of Questions to Ask Your Child
- Tell me the names of your friends you played with at recess.
- What did you and (friend’s name) do at recess today?
- What are some other games you could play?
- If (insert name) isn’t in school tomorrow, what can you do?
#2 Helping Your Child Develop Social Skills
– Read a Book
Find a good book about making friends and read it to your child. While reading, talk about the characters and what they are doing.
Consider some of the following questions when reading to further the discussion with your child:
- What did the characters do that seemed like a good idea?
- What did they do that maybe wasn’t such a good idea?
- Is there anything else the characters could have done?
- How would you feel if you were (insert character’s name)?
Here is a list of books to help your child make friends and learn better social skills to build lasting friendships.
– Practice It
Make a game to practice situations and join in with your child when you’re doing this.
Write different scenarios on cards, even dress up, or make a Readers Theater on friendships, and act out how to make friends.
This may seem silly, but this practice will help your child feel more comfortable when they are actually in the situation because it won’t be as unfamiliar to them, and they will have some background knowledge.
– Set Up “Safe” Situations
If you’re new to the neighborhood, or even if your child just hasn’t found a group of friends around your house yet, go for a walk and talk to the people you run into, or make some phone calls and invite kids over.
This will give you a chance to help your child, and likely even other children, learn how to make friends in a safe situation.
Plan activities that force them to play together and talk and interact so they can work on the skills you’ve practiced in a natural setting.
– Social Stories
Social stories can be used as visual cues on how to handle situations. They can include “what if” situations dealing with friendships.
Social stories can be used for teens too. Teenagers go through a lot of social situations that they need help with.
- A friend decides they don’t want to be friends with you anymore
- When a friend does something wrong or breaks the rules at school
- A friend is being rude to other children
- When a friend hurts your feelings
- A friend doesn’t want to do the same thing as you
And if you are moving to a new town or new school, create one specifically for getting to know their new environment.
Change is HUGE for special needs kids. So, anything you can do to prepare for this change will help.
– Teach the Qualities of a Good Friend
As a parent, it is super important to go over the qualities of a good friend to your child as they prepare each school year and interact with others. Some things that you should remind your child of would be:
- Sharing is caring, and they should always be willing to share.
- It is important to listen to others so that they know their thoughts and ideas are being heard.
- Be happy for friends when something good happens.
- It is important to let an adult know when there is a disagreement that the children can not solve.
- Smiling and being kind to others can help others to have a better day.
- It’s okay to cry when a friend hurts your feelings.
- Facial expressions can help others to have a good or bad day.
- Thank a friend or write them a thank you note when they do something helpful or kind to you.
- Always tell the truth to others.
– Role Play
Another way that you can help your special needs child make friends (and keep them) is by role playing with family members.
Role Play is an easy way for parents to teach their children about disagreements with friends, caring for friends, and what makes a good friend. Try some of these role-playing activities.
- Practice initiating conversations
Role-play scenarios where your child approaches a peer and starts a conversation. Encourage your child to use appropriate greetings and ask open-ended questions to keep the conversation going.
- Practice empathy
Role play scenarios where your child practices empathy and understanding of other people’s feelings. For example, your child could practice consoling a friend who is upset or cheering up a friend who is feeling down.
- Address conflict resolution
Try role playing scenarios where your child practices resolving conflicts with peers. Encourage your child to use active listening skills and come up with solutions that benefit everyone involved.
- Practice nonverbal communication
Role-play scenarios where your child practices nonverbal communication skills such as making eye contact, using appropriate body language and using facial expressions to convey emotions.
- Create social scripts
Work with your child to develop social scripts that they can use in real-life social situations. For example, a script for introducing themselves to a new person or inviting someone to play.
- Other Social Scripts to Plan Out:
- What to do if someone doesn’t want to be friends?
- How to approach other children if I want to try to be their friend?
- Questions to ask others to learn more about them.
- Other Social Scripts to Plan Out:
- Practice turn-taking
Role play scenarios where your child practices taking turns in conversations and games with friends. This can help build the skill of waiting patiently and listening to others.
Remember to make role-playing fun and engaging for your child. Try to make the scenarios as realistic as possible and provide positive feedback and encouragement for your child’s efforts.
With practice and patience, role playing can be a helpful tool for your child to build social skills and make and keep friends.
#3 Find Opportunities for Socialization
Finding opportunities for socialization is an important step in helping your special needs child make friends.
Whether it’s through structured activities or informal playdates, there are many ways to help your child build social connections and create a sense of belonging.
– Speak with your child’s school about after-school activities
If your child does not have a severe disability and is still able to interact with other children, the first place to look for age-appropriate friendship is the school your child is (or will be) attending.
Most schools offer a family resource center that can point you in the right direction for activities and groups to attend.
And your child’s special education class might also offer activities that permit bonding and friendship through teamwork and group participation.
– Check with local organizations for special programs
Does your town have a YMCA or Boys & Girls Club? These are great organizations that promote a sense of community through activities centered on health and often have play groups for different ages.
If your child does not require constant assistance, letting them join a supervised group activity can foster a sense of independence as they seek to find commonalities with other children their same age.
Special Olympics is a great program to check into as well!
– Take them Places to Meet Friends
Let’s face it – children just love to play; it’s how they learn, unwind and relax. And it can help clear the mind by focusing on certain pleasures that they love to engage in.
If the park seems to be particularly busy on certain days or during particular times, try to introduce your child to the playground environment during slower times in which only one or two children might be playing.
Check with your local parks and recreation department or city hall to see if there are activities geared towards children, and then let your child know what’s available.
If they are old enough, you can help them make an informed decision on what activities they feel comfortable participating in.
– Here are some places you could go with your child to make friends:
- Trampoline Parks
- Local Playgrounds
- School sponsored events
- Local bowling/arcade/sports parks
- Public swimming pools or lakes
– Join STRIDE
STRIDE is an online program specifically designed to enhance Social Skills for those with special needs!
It stands for Socializing and Taking Responsibility In Developing Excellence and is open to all ages (even adults).
The program is divided into similar age groups. Each session is created specifically for each group based on the participant’s needs.
Find out more information and join the next group session today here: STRIDE Building Upon Social Skills Together
– Ask about support groups
Your local family support office might have information regarding support groups for your child with special needs that take place there.
If one is available, see if they offer specialized playgroups or care while you attend the meeting; some groups offer these services so you can attend.
Letting your child with special needs interact with other children in this group setting is a great way to introduce them to potential new friends in a non-threatening environment.
– Ask your child’s specialists to help
If your child requires sessions with an occupational therapist, physical therapist, speech pathologist, or other special education services outside of school, consider asking their office whether or not they offer support groups for children with similar backgrounds.
They might hold their own activities for children with special needs, and who better to know these children than the ones who work with them every day?
If they do not offer such services, consider offering to assist with organizing a function that will get everyone together.
– Get involved in your child’s hobbies
Some children with special needs have one thing they love doing above all others, such as art or soccer. Ask your child what they are interested in and then seek to find similar activities locally.
Helping to integrate your child into a social setting through activities they know and love can soothe their fears about not being accepted.
– Join a church
If your family is religious, finding a new church environment to call your own can help your child with special needs interact with children who have the same beliefs.
Finding common ground helps to break the ice in new situations, and churches are generally accepting of all members regardless of disability or circumstance.
Your child is special and has unique sensitivities, but giving them a place to feel safe and special for a few hours a week can help them break out of their shell and talk to kids in their own way without fear of judgment.
#4 One Crucial Step to Help Your Special Needs Child Make Friends
A child with special needs is often surrounded by a stigma that there is something inherently wrong with them. This can lead to feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem.
Take time to empower your child through positive reinforcement. Center your focus on positive actions and words, like:
- “I’m so proud of you for trying to make friends. It takes courage to put yourself out there, and I believe in you.”
- “You are a great friend. Your kindness and willingness to listen make you someone others want to be around.”
- “You are a valuable person with so much to offer. Don’t forget that.”
- “Making friends can be hard, but you’re doing a great job. Keep trying, and don’t give up.”
- “I appreciate your efforts to be friendly and inclusive. You are making a positive difference in other people’s lives.”
- “Your uniqueness is what makes you special. Don’t be afraid to show others who you truly are.”
- Who can resist a bright smile like yours?”
Making them feel good about themselves in whatever way possible can lead to feelings of spontaneity when it comes to dealing with new children.
Remember to personalize your positive reinforcement statements to your child’s unique strengths and struggles.
By providing regular encouragement and positive feedback, you can help your child stay motivated and confident as they navigate the challenges of making friends.
How Will You Help Your Child Navigate Friendships?
Although it may be challenging, the benefits of social connection and friendship are invaluable to your child’s emotional, social, and academic well-being. Remember to be patient, persistent, and proactive in your efforts.
Your child’s journey to making friends may not be easy, but with your love, guidance, and support, they can overcome obstacles and form meaningful connections with their peers.
Keep these tips in mind as you continue to help your special needs child navigate the complex world of social interactions and relationships. Together, you can help your child create a happy and fulfilling social life.
What are some unique ideas you have for helping your child make new friends? Share them in the comments below.
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