Ask a Child Psychologist: Does My Kid Have Enough Friends?

“I am worried that my 7-year-old doesn’t have that many friends. He seems to enjoy school for the most part and talks about some of the kids in his class, but I don’t think that he has any close friends the way I did when I was his age. Should I be concerned that he is lonely or not developing proper social skills? What can I do?”

We are social beings. We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years living in groups, relying on each other, supporting each other and sharing in the raising of our children. As such, we sometimes talk about “the social brain” in comparison to the “logical or emotional brain.” At its extreme, children with social learning difficulties may be provided with a neurodivergence diagnoses such as Autism or Social Pragmatic Communication Disorder. But from this mother’s description, it does not appear that social skills are an issue. It also does not appear her child is lonely—at least he is not reporting it. So, what’s normal? What’s not?

There is a wide range of normal differences in socialization. In the research we find that it isn’t the number of friends you have or, for that matter, even the number of play dates you have in a week. What matters more is when you want to interact socially, are there peers available and can you do it successfully without an altercation, loss of interest or some other challenge? Some children grow up in communities where there is access to many children for socialization. Others find themselves in communities where there are few other children of their age. One is not necessarily better than the other. (In other words, there is no “magic” number of friends that your child should have.)

I urge parents to not compare themselves and their childhood to their child—especially at this moment in time as the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more difficult for children to socialize, even children with normal social development. But, to this mother—or any caregiver—who is generally concerned about their child’s social well-being, here are four things you can do.

1. Communicate with your child’s classroom teacher. Ask about friendships at school, behavior on the playground, working with other children during group activities, etc. Is the child engaged interacting with everyone else or are they isolated? The latter is a problem that should be addressed.

2. Help your child identify at least one good friend from school. Then, make an effort to have that child invited over for a movie night, sleepover or some other activity. That will give you as a parent the opportunity to observe how your child interacts with a peer.

3. Consider whether your child has been invited to parties or other activities with classmates. This is often a telling statistic. If your child has been invited to parties, this suggests that they are accepted, even at this young age when “everyone is invited.”

4. Listen to and observe your child. I think the time to worry is when your child reports being lonely, sad or unhappy, when they report that no one likes them or they have no friends, or when you observe them in group situations isolating themselves and being unable or unwilling to socialize. Kids have two kinds of basic social problems. They are either too aggressive, boisterous and over the top or they are isolated and withdrawn. The first one leads to rejection by peers. The second one is neglect by peers.

If any of the information above or your observations raise greater concern, the next step would be to speak with the school psychologist at your child’s elementary school and ask your pediatrician for a referral to a pediatric psychologist. But if your child’s teacher isn’t concerned and you’ve observed your child interact with his peers successfully, then you can rest assured that your kid is likely doing just fine.

Dr. Sam Goldstein is neuropsychologist and the co-author of Tenacity in Children: Nurturing the Seven Instincts for Lifetime Success.

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