Social skills & friendships
Some children with disabilities, particularly those with learning difficulties, do not find it easy making and keeping friends. This page provides information about making and keeping friends.
The most important people in children’s lives are usually parents, siblings, other adults and other children with whom they have lots of contact. While the relationships with adults and siblings are very important, friendships with other children often have a big effect on the child’s social development. Friendships with other children can meet a lot of the child’s needs including:
- companionship and recreation
- feeling comfortable and safe emotionally
- a sense of belonging and feeling included
- learning different ways of acting and getting along with others, for example, learning to give and take, how to deal with disagreement, how to respect others and how to respond to feelings
- feeling good about themselves.
For children of preschool age, it is commonly seen that:
- rather than play with each other directly, young children simply play alongside each other
- friends are chosen on the basis of who they see regularly
- friends are those that share toys and play games with them
- friendship ends if there is a fight or the friend moves away.
For children of school age, it is commonly found that:
- friends are those who help them, have similar interests, and enjoy doing the same activities
- the child understands that friends share thoughts and feelings
- sometimes school-aged children understand that friendships are strong enough to survive a fight or separation
- between the ages of about five and nine, children begin to understand that others may think about situations differently than the way they do themselves
- around ten years of age comes the understanding that a real friend is someone with whom they can tell their inner thoughts and who respects them.
By the time a person becomes an adult they have usually learned that a friend can be trusted, he or she listens to you, notices when you need help, and offers help to you.
Making friends is often thought of as a natural and ongoing process. However being able to form friendships depends on:
Children with disabilities, particularly learning difficulties, may not make friends as easily as others. Development of their communication and social skills make friendships a challenge. Research (Slee, 1996) indicates that children with learning disabilities are:
- less likely to choose behaviours that will help them get along with others in social situations
- less able to solve social problems, such as sorting out disagreements
- less likely to work out what will happen as a result of their behaviour
- less likely to make allowances for their listeners in conversations
- less able to manage the more complicated ways for getting along with others, for example, persuasion, negotiation, not giving in to pressure from the other person, giving and being able to accept criticism
- less able to adjust to new social situations
- more likely to be rejected or left alone by their classmates and peers
- less able to adjust to new social situations.
Children with disabilities who don’t have friendships may be at risk of developing problems with how they cope with their feelings and with their schoolwork. These issues can last through their adolescence and into adulthood (Kemple, 1991). They may include:
- strong feelings of loneliness
- lower self-image than other children
- a lack of motivation and willingness to learn
- being unable to concentrate on tasks.
Parents can help children to make friends and keep them by:
- involving the child in activities with other children, for example, take them to playgroups, early intervention groups, the playground, recreation programs, such as boy scouts, girl guides and the YMCA
- inviting other children home to play
- teaching the child how to get along with other children when they are playing
- teaching other children about the child’s disability, for example, if the disability involves a communication problem, telling playmates ways that they can communicate with the child
- preparing the child to answer questions that others often ask, such as ‘why do you use a walking frame?’
- listening to children who have had bad experiences with other children and using ‘feeling words’ to show that you understand (for example, “You must have felt angry when John made fun of you”).
- Pair the child with a disability to a similar-aged child who is good at forming friendships, for example, someone who is friendly and communicates well.
- Provide some information about disabilities to all of the other children in the class.
- Teach social skills in the classroom using packages such as the ‘Stop, Think, Do’ program.
- Encourage children to get along with each other in the classroom. Use resources such as the ‘Friendly Kids, Friendly Classroom’ books.
- Use children’s books to teach social skills – many are available on the topic of friends, socialising, conversation, and playing together.
Novita psychologists provide:
- social skills groups which often develop into friendship groups
- counselling for individuals or the whole family to help with things that are hard for the family to deal with
- the option of discussions with teachers or other school staff to provide resources and ideas.
If you would like information or free advice, speak to someone in our friendly team on 1300 NOVITA (1300 668 482) or visit our Contact Us page for more ways to get in touch.