Everyone wants and needs relationships. We are hard-wired for it. One of the biggest hurts I have felt as a parent is wanting my child to feel accepted and connected to others. In the support groups I lead it is a common issue that resurfaces again and again. I talk to parents about nurturing the relationships they do have and they switch to talking about relationships their children don’t have. I want to offer to you a few tools that may be of help to parents.
“Just One Friend “Night
Churches could bring great relief from isolation by hosting a “Just One Friend” night. The goal is to help folks gather and meet other folks who are looking to make friends too. Invite the special needs community and anyone else who is looking for friendships. Set up games and activities. Parents stay and help foster connections. This in’t a respite night. It’s a relationship building night. Kids build relationships with kids. Parents build relationships with each other. The general premise is that folks are coming to have fun and meet new people that they may want to connect with after game night is over.
- The volunteers are built right into the program. The parents come and stay so the children are well-supervised.
- Plan a few activities and have a coordinator or two on hand to make sure the necessary supplies are ready for crafts or games
- Encourage social games within the capabilities of the participants that encourage connection and mixing with a variety of people. Find another person whose birthday is the same month as yours. Everyone with a pet cat meet in this corner of the room, dog owners in that corner, no pets people meet at the table, etc. Any activity that mixes people up and creates interaction and fun.
- Refreshments always make for good together. Build ice cream Sundaes or decorate cookies. If folks with food allergies are coming, gather that info through the registration process and choose foods everyone can enjoy
- Most churches have polices that all adults who have access to children must have a background check run. This can be handled through pre-registration and with a volunteer with internet access as families sign-in.
These are just a few ideas. The overall goal is to create a safe and fun environment for folks to connect. If your congregation would like to host one of these, feel free to be in touch with me. I’d be glad to brainstorm with you and think through how this could work in your setting.
Friendship Building Tools
Here are a couple of practical strategies I used for nurturing friendships when my son was younger. I recognize that this is not a universal list for all the various differences among our children. Hopefully it will at least provide some fertile ground for other ideas to spring up as well:
- Reassure your child that making friends can be hard even for adults. It may feel like everyone else knows each other, but that is not the case. Everyone learns to meet new people and make friends. It’s not just them.
- Have your child talk to kids who are friendly and suggest they ask them questions. Kids love to talk about what they did over the summer, weekend, etc. Help them be an interested listener.
- Have them look for others who look lonely and talk to them. My son can spot a kid on autism spectrum in heartbeat. Like matches with like sometimes. They get him in a way others don’t.
- Have them make friends with grownups at school. The cafeteria monitor can be a great ally in finding friends and avoiding bullying.
- Dress like everyone else. This sounds basic, but it is amazing what an impact it can have if a child is “over-dressed” for school, especially boys. If they look like they came from a fashion shoot for children’s resort wear change their clothes!
- Be neat. Yes, the bath and hair routine can be a battle, but it is a battle worth fighting.
- If you feed them they will come. When my son had a play date in elementary school (not an everyday occurrence!) I’d ask his guest what was his or her favorite cookie and then bake them while the kids played. Over the years his friends started calling our house the pub.
- In keeping with the above strategy, drop by once or twice a month to the school cafeteria with a couple of pizzas or one of those giant cookie cakes. Some kids grab a slice and run. Others grab a slice and stay.
- If you typically pack a treat in your child’s lunch, pack two so that they have an extra to share.
- Invite others. Waiting around for a playdate invitation that doesn’t come feels lousy. Make the effort to extend yourself. Sometimes there will be rejection, but other times you get a winner.
- Be intentional about fostering relationships. Even small acts of kindness are nurturing. If your child mentions someone was home from school that day, call the parent and ask how her child is. Folks like to be remembered know that they were missed.
Please share other ideas in the comments. It would be great to support each other in helping our kids find friends.