They say that our school days are the best years of our lives. That may be true for many of us, but for those who struggled to make friends at school, college, or university, those years might have been a total nightmare.
There is nothing worse than being a teenager and having zero friends. The feelings of isolation, not fitting in, or being excluded, can be devastating and have a knock-on effect for the rest of our lives.
As a parent, knowing that your child is having problems making friends can cause a lot of anxiety and a feeling of being powerless to help.
The fact is that younger people do seem to be having a harder time making friends today than they did twenty years ago, and there are a lot of possible explanations for that. Depending on what age group we are talking about, various factors determine how we build relationships and not everyone has the same coping skills.
The figures are pretty dismal when we examine how young people feel about their friendship status, with an increasingly negative impact on their mental health becoming more and more obvious.
Just to introduce you to some figures, a study by the UK Office of National Statistics carried out in 2018 found that 1 in 10 children aged 10 to 15 often felt lonely. Those in the bottom age range of 10-12 showed a greater sense of loneliness (14%) than older kids in the 13-15 year age group (8.6%).
Similar studies carried out in the US in 2017 also pointed to 39% of high school seniors saying they felt lonely, with 38% of 12th graders admitting they often felt left out and lonely. When it comes to university students, it’s sad to see that a recent report carried out during the COVID-19 pandemic found that 20% of year 2 & 3 students in UK universities felt that they had no ‘real friends’.
For many young people, their time at school or university is clearly NOT the best years of their lives.
As we all know, having friends is crucial to our well-being and helps us to develop and grow. From an early age, friendships help children to learn important social skills such as communicating, coping with problems, self-regulation of emotions, and learning empathy.
In an academic environment, friendships help to form attitudes to learning and affect overall performance. It can make all the difference between success or failure, not just at school or college, but in later life too. It goes without saying that children or teenagers who have difficulty making friends are more likely to underachieve and even drop out of the education system altogether.
To make matters worse, their feelings of loneliness may be compounded by bullying or rejection, all of which are extremely damaging for their emotional and mental welfare.
The good news is that there are plenty of things we can all do to increase the chances of making new friends and getting out of the loneliness trap. If you are a young person in a new school or college, you are going to find some sound strategies in this article to help you create great friendships.
We don’t need to make many friends. As a friend quote says, “Life isn’t about having a thousand friends. It’s about finding the very few right ones you need.”
If you are a parent, you will discover practical tips to help your child overcome their inability to make friends and reduce your stress levels.
I want to take a quick look first at how friendships develop, depending on age, so you have some idea of what is normal. All too often, the stigma of having no friends can be crushing, especially in a world where being ‘social’ and popular seems to be a big thing.
There’s a lot of pressure on young people to be socially active these days, although it’s worth noting here that having one or two close friends is much healthier than having hundreds of virtual ones.
How friendships develop
Young children up to the age of 7 usually strike up friendships because of shared circumstances. Joe is in the same class as Mike, sits next to him, lives nearby, and goes to the same karate class.
Their parents are also friends, so Joe and Mike get to see a lot of each other outside of school. They may or may not have a natural affinity for each other and will also be happy to play with another child if the opportunity arises.
From the ages of 7 to 11, more stable friendships are formed based on loyalty, generosity, and fairness. Now Joe places a lot of emphasis on fitting in and feels the peer pressure to be like the others. He may be part of a small group that requires some kind of code of behavior, with strict rules about who can or can not join. Joe is still friends with Mike but he may also have three to five other kids he calls friends.
From 11 years onwards, friendships have more to do with an adolescent’s social, emotional, psychological, and physical development. There’s more awareness of the other person’s feelings and an increase in intimacy and trust.
Now Joe seeks out friends with whom he feels a real connection and he wants to feel loved and accepted. This is the age at which friends can come and go, depending on how strong the relationship is.
Not all children and teenagers are like Joe. Some will have more difficulty in making friends because of certain ‘disadvantages’. Although it’s not always the case, kids with learning difficulties or communication and/or attention difficulties may find it harder to form friendships. This applies whether you are 7 or 17 and the ability to retain friends can even become more difficult the older you get.
If a child is seen as different by the other kids, it is often hard for them to be accepted by the wider group. Children who are disruptive, aggressive, or exhibit anti-social behavior are also avoided by many others and although they may make friends, often it’s with other kids who behave in the same way.
Being bossy or mean can also affect the number of friends they have, and this also applies in adulthood. Kids who are overweight are often the subject of bullying, as well as being unable to take part in some of the normal school activities. This can lead to anxiety and depression, which, in turn, leads to fewer friends.
Basically, any kid who is different may find it hard to establish strong friendships, including those who are defined by their sexual identity, religion, social status, or ethnic origin.
If any of these issues relate to you, they are very likely to follow you from the schoolyard to the university campus. Unless you get the support that you need, it can be very tough to make friends, wherever you are. Below, you will find some useful advice that can guide you through the friend-making process and help you to find people who love you as you are.
If you are a parent, you need to be there from day one, providing all the help that you can to ensure your child is given every opportunity to develop healthy relationships. Instead of worrying and feeling powerless, it’s time to step up your game with the following strategies:
How can kids make friends at school?
Advice For Kids
Not everyone is brimming with confidence and it’s difficult to make friends if you are shy or introverted. You may be with the same kids each day but can’t seem to strike up a friendship with any of them.
You can overcome this by looking for those who have the same interests as you and you might just discover that someone you didn’t know very well is actually very easy to get along with in an out-of-school setting.
If you love drawing, for instance, join the after-school art group, where you will be able to come out of your comfort zone in a safe environment.
If you love reading, join the book club where you can talk about what books you like with other members.
Ask your teachers if there are any clubs that you don’t know about and try them out to see how you go. Instead of hanging out with people who put others down or who are mean, spend time with those who show kindness and fairness. You may be tempted to try to make friends with the most popular boy or girl in class, but if they don’t show you any respect, just stay away from them.
If you don’t think you are particularly good at sport, there are lots of other fun activities you can try out that may lead to making new friends such as joining the table tennis club or even the chess team.
Although the thought of going to any social events like school dances may sound terrifying, it is a great way to mix with your schoolmates in a relaxed setting.
Find out if any of your classmates are going to the x or y event, and ask if you can tag along. Invite someone to go with you and even if they can’t make it, they will appreciate you asking.
Talk to other people when you get the chance, beginning with a quick ‘hello’. You can compliment them on their new school bag or tell them how much you enjoyed the football game they took part in yesterday. Striking up a conversation doesn’t have to be intense – keep it casual and take it from there.
Don’t hide behind your mobile phone or walk around with headphones. This signals that you are unapproachable, even though you would really love someone to talk to.
Advice For Parents
Your child’s age will determine how much you can do to help them make new friends at school. The older they are, the more difficult it is to intervene and you definitely don’t want to embarrass them or make them feel even worse. Tact and respect are extremely important if you want your child to appreciate your efforts so be mindful of how you go about things.
You can encourage them to take part in team sports, hobbies, games and other group activities. Be there to offer them transport to and from the activity.
Organize regular sleepovers at your home and allow your child to sleep over at friends’ houses too.
Invite other kids to your house more often and always make them feel welcome. Arrange for a day out together at a local theme park or to see a movie at the cinema.
Talk openly to your children about social situations and encourage them to share their thoughts with you. Avoid being oppressive when giving advice or stating your opinion, otherwise, the conversation will come to an abrupt end.
Encourage any hobbies that will involve social interaction by providing them with any equipment they need, such as a bike, skateboard, or surfboard.
Let them know that conflict is common in any relationship and give them the tools to resolve their differences with others in an empowering way. Encourage them to bring their friends over and allow them their privacy when they do so.
Don’t be overly critical of their choice of friends or try to manage their relationships for them. Remain neutral when commenting on this one or the other and take care not to convey negative opinions.
Be encouraging, uplifting, and inspiring!
How can teens make friends at a new school?
Advice For Teens
That feeling of being the new kid on the block can be overwhelming. No one knows you and you don’t know them, which can make you feel anxious and extremely awkward. All eyes are on you as you walk into class and as the ‘new’ kid, you are going to have to earn your place amongst the group.
The first thing to remember is that you have more in common with your classmates than you think, so give them some time to get to know you and you will soon be making plenty of buddies.
Smile when you first meet your new classmates and make eye contact with them to show that you are friendly and approachable, not weird at all!
Take the initiative to start a conversation, beginning with “Hi” and tell them your first name before asking theirs. Often, that’s all it takes to get the ball rolling.
You can extend the conversation by paying them a compliment such as, “I love your T-shirt. It’s so cool.” This is a great ice-breaker that will set you off on the right foot.
In the book “How To Win Friends and Influence People”, Dale Carnegie said, ““You can make more friends in two months by becoming genuinely interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
When you have the chance, you can ask open-ended questions that require more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Ask what series they are currently watching on Netflix, then continue with follow-up questions.
Show interest in what your schoolmates do in their spare time and ask them about any social activities going on after school.
Humor is a great way to get people to warm to you so crack a spontaneous joke if you can or tell a funny story about yourself. This is sure to get them laughing and enjoying your company.
Take note of what your classmates seem to be into – what music are they listening to? What books are they reading? Which teams do they follow? Show interest in their pet likes when chatting to them, which they will appreciate.
Be yourself. It’s no good trying to pretend to be someone you are not because everyone will see through that pretty quickly. Fitting in doesn’t mean having to change – it means finding friends who like you for who you are. If someone doesn’t accept you, then they won’t make a good friend anyway.
Resist the temptation to be overly accommodating in order to endear yourself to others. Your new friendships should be based on mutual respect and honesty, not superficial behavior or pretense.
Advice For Parents
We often recall our own painful memories of being a new kid at school and worry that our children will have the same difficulty in adjusting.
Often, there’s a temptation to make a fuss about it and to show too much concern. Kids, especially teenagers, often find this intrusive and don’t always feel comfortable telling us everything.
If you are genuinely concerned that your child hasn’t made any friends at their new school, the following tips will be useful. It’s also important to remember that making friends is a skill we begin to learn in our early years and you shouldn’t wait until they are teenagers to begin.
Always keep the lines of communication open and let your teen know you are available whenever they need to talk. They may be full of anxiety and could do with a sounding board – someone who will listen to them without trying to ‘fix’ everything.
Hear them out and refrain from being a ‘know-it-all’. Instead, ask them to reflect on how they feel, how they see themselves, and what is important to them.
In conversation, do some gentle steering that will allow them to understand their emotions. Ask them about their likes and dislikes and give them the space to focus on finding friends who will be a good fit.
Remind them that good friendships grow in time and not everyone they meet will be an instant friend. Latching on to the first person who shows any interest because they feel insecure doesn’t mean that they will become bosom buddies.
Practice having light conversations with your child to show them the art of small talk. Maintain an upbeat tone when chatting to them and lead by example, listening with intent when they speak.
Explain that arguments and differences of opinion are natural in any relationship and help them to work on their negotiation and consolidation skills. You also need to practice what you preach and show them that you are willing to be wrong sometimes.
Avoid preaching to them about what you did or didn’t do when you were younger. Times have changed since then, Instead, show empathy for their situation and remove any judgment.
If you don’t like their choice of friends, be careful about how you share your opinions. Ask why they like hanging out with x or y and initiate a conversation about what having good friends means. Instead of making them defensive, prompt them to look at their friends from a different perspective.
Encourage your teen to have a wide circle of friends and enable them to enjoy a varied social life. Be prepared to support them when they need you, such as driving them from A to B to meet up with their pals and show readiness to give them any other kind of practical help.
How to make friends at college/university
Advice For Students
Anyone’s first year at university can be a daunting experience and often involves moving away from home to a strange town or city. It’s one of those watershed moments in life on the road to independence and self-discovery, with the issue of making new friends being a major hurdle to jump over.
The student lifestyle sounds exciting at first, but it can easily become a lonely routine of classes, dorms, and studying if you don’t make the effort to meet new people. In order to avoid that, here are some strategies to help deal with university life:
Make sure to attend Freshers week, where you will get a taste of what’s going on in the university. Use this as an opportunity to find out about any clubs or societies that may interest you, where you’ll find like-minded students. Join the hockey team if you are into that, or sign up to help with the university newspaper.
Try something new – you may discover a new hobby or talent!
If you are staying on campus or in university accommodation, frequent the common areas to get to know your roommates. Remember that everybody is in the same boat as you and are all looking to make new friends.
If you have a communal dining area, you can eat there, which will bring you in contact with fellow students. This type of setting is ideal for making relaxing conversation and getting to know others better.
Get to your classes early and strike up a conversation with people sitting near to you. Ask them where they are from, what made them decide to study this particular course, and tell them about yourself too. You have made a great step towards creating potential new friends.
Ask your classmates what plans they have for after the lesson and suggest going for a coffee or a snack. Most people will be more than happy to have some company as they are feeling just as lonely as you are.
Find out what events are going on in the evenings and at the weekends and if you can’t find someone to go with, take a deep breath and go alone. There will be a lot of people you can get chatting to once you are there, some of whom you may recognize from your dorm or classes.
When it comes to studying, make a habit of going to the university library, where you are more likely to meet new people. You can ask what they are majoring in and why they chose this university. Keep the conversation casual as you don’t want to come across as intrusive or creepy.
Get involved in a study group and if you can’t find one suitable, start your own. Invite people to join and organize to meet up once or twice a week, where you will have more chances to get to know them better.
If you are not into noisy parties or concerts, you could always invite some of your classmates over to watch a movie or for a few drinks. Not everyone may accept your offer, but don’t take that as a rejection. They may have already made other plans but would love to come over the next time you ask.
If you are staying in shared accommodation, leave your room door open now and again. This signals to your dorm mates that you aren’t antisocial and gives them the opportunity to pop their heads in to say hello.
Get out of your room as much as possible, even if it’s just to go for a run or a walk. The longer you stay alone, the more isolated you will begin to feel, which can seriously affect your emotional well-being.
Be prepared to step out of your comfort zone by attending activities you have never tried before, such as campus aerobic classes or baseball. You will find plenty of options and can try anything that sounds like it might be fun and will meet others with the same interests.
If you intend to work part-time during your university year, try to find something that involves socializing, such as in a coffee shop or restaurant either on or off-campus. You will even get to know your coworkers better and may develop a good friendship with one of them.
Be open to meeting people from different backgrounds to your own. University is a great place to expand your horizons and learn about different cultures and identities. Instead of judging people who don’t appear to have anything in common with you, learn more about them and let your common interests and experiences help you to bond.
Advice For Parents
When the time comes for your son or daughter to fly the nest and spread their wings at university, the experience can be more stressful for you than for them. Naturally, you will have concerns about their welfare and how they will cope in their new life, although feel limited in what you can do to help.
It’s up to them now to adjust to their new environment and if they have moved away to another town or city, they also have to deal with managing alone.
Unfortunately, you will not be in a position to monitor how they are doing as much as you would like to and they may not tell you everything that is going on. Despite this, you can probe gently when you have a chance to talk to them.
You can find out if they are having trouble making new friends by casually asking what they have been doing in their spare time. If they reply that they are usually studying in their dorm, dig a bit deeper – perhaps they are isolating themselves too much.
Encourage them to join clubs or teams and explore new interests, letting them know how excited you are for them. If, by the end of the first semester, they don’t appear to have developed any extracurricular activities, make sure to open up a conversation about it when they come home.
If they don’t mention the names of any new friends, avoid making it a big issue. Instead, act as a safe place for them to air their fears and concerns. Acknowledge how difficult it is to make new friends and suggest ways that will help them to overcome their shyness or awkwardness. (You can use any of the above points).
Avoid face-to-face dialogues if you can – many people feel uncomfortable in this situation and will close up about what is troubling them. Try chatting while in the car together or watching TV – this takes the pressure off and avoids feelings of being put under the microscope.
Don’t ask questions like, “Why don’t you have any new friends?” or “How come no one ever calls you?” This will only make your son or daughter feel worse if that is the case and cause even greater anxiety.
Make open-ended questions instead, such as, “How are things going at uni? Met anyone interesting that you hang out with?”
Remember that not everyone is the same. While you may like having a large circle of friends, your child may prefer to have one good friend instead. True friendship takes time and doesn’t happen overnight. Trust them to make their own friends, in their own time, and try to worry less.
A final note
If you are a parent reading this book, it’s important to consider that young adults interact differently from when you were their age. With internet access and social media, they have found a way to communicate with each other that we don’t always understand or appreciate.
I often hear parents expressing concern about how much time their kids spend chatting on their smartphones or laptops but I actually think this is a good thing. Before this ease of communication was widely accessible, kids had much less contact with their friends, so chatting isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
It may raise a red flag when it seems to be the ONLY communication they use, but as long as they are attending school or college, they will be interacting face-to-face with others. You can be pretty sure of that.
It’s also useful to remember that teens are at the age where they are discovering more about themselves, their interests, their sexuality, and their beliefs. They may not feel comfortable discussing everything with you and prefer to work through their problems alone. All you can do is respect their privacy and be there for them when they need you.
One of the issues that many people face these days is the feeling of loneliness when moving to a new town or city for work purposes.
Leaving friends and family behind can make this a very difficult transition as we don’t always have the social skills to start making new friends all over again. But you can find some practical advice on how to make friends in a new city, as well as strategies for building friendships that will stand the test of time.
- More and more young people are experiencing loneliness and social isolation today.
- Friendships are formed for different reasons, depending on age and abilities.
- Young children will often need extra support if they are to be successful at making friends.
- Parents can positively contribute to helping their teenage children make friends, even when they are at university.