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When a Child has Trouble Making Friends

QUESTION: My nephew is eight-years-old and has a lot of trouble making friends. He is a very likable kid, polite and good-looking, but he is a bit of a loner and everything has to be "just perfect" or he gets in a snit. He doesn't interact well with others, preferring to watch TV or play with his trains. Some of the other kids pick on him at school for being different. What can my sister do to help him to socialize better with his classmates?

ANSWER: Your nephew's retreat into television may be a symptom rather than the source of his problem. Children sometimes watch TV in order to soothe themselves. If he has been obsessed with TV from an early age, he may have been keeping himself company with the television as a replacement for human stimulation and comfort. Like any addiction, the more he may have used television to ease his loneliness, the less opportunity he had to develop social skills.

You are right to consider kids' clubs (boy scouts, etc.) for encouraging his social development. He is still young, and will no doubt learn about the benefits of social interaction as he is exposed to rewarding group activities. If he has any talent for sports, (such as soccer) this could be a natural for focusing his attention on excelling at a skill that would involve him in membership on a team.

It may also be beneficial to include other boys his age in home activities. Inviting a friend over for a couple of hours after school to play with trains may result in invitations for him to join others in his community for play after school. Throwing him a birthday party with a theme involving his trains may help provide a bridge of shared enthusiasm between himself and other children who also enjoy trains!

If perfectionism blocks him from enjoying a social life, he may need support to play with greater abandon (like splashing in puddles). Being a perfectionist may also proliferate low self-esteem. Attention to preserving his childhood and pointing out the successes he has when attempting to do something new can provide him with "positive" instead of "negative" inner dialogue. It is not too early to teach him how to be his own "best friend." Help him say to himself, "You can do it, just try and try again, and finally you will succeed" rather than the critical words of a "perfection monster" if he doesn't do something perfectly the first time around!

Eight can be a very perfectionist age anyway, but it is also possible that your nephew may have picked up some self berating habits which could fuel his retreat from social interaction. His own "inner critic" may magnify his sensitivity.

Your nephew has many great qualities which you have pointed out. And he may be somewhat introverted by nature. Whether he is missing a social life due to a lack of opportunity or a personal shyness of character, he will no doubt benefit from an increase in his social sphere of development. If he continues to retreat into television or does not respond positively to social interaction, it may be useful to consult a child psychologist regarding a social skills group for children his age which could catch him up on the social cues he may be missing.

Your nephew is a lucky boy to have your loving concern and attention to his needs. With so much to deal with, every parent needs an Aunt like you!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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