09/14/2011 01:20 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2011

My Son Has Trouble Making Friends

Dear Susan,

My son, who just started the 3rd grade, is at a new school this year and isn’t doing very well. How do you encourage a child to not eat lunch alone, or play on his own at recess? He hasn’t made any new friends and says he “hates” his new school. Should I tell the teacher?

Concerned Mom

Dear Mom,

Of all the things that children dread about going to school, one of the most genuinely-feared experiences is feeling left out: having no one to play with at recess or sit with at lunch. It may not sound all that important, but for children (and even teens), what can make or break their enjoyment of school is largely determined by whether they have at least one friend to pal around with.

For youngsters who make friends easily, the social aspect of school is easy. But for a child who is shy, or new, it can be painfully difficult to forge friendships. Here are a few ways to help your child:

• Do mention to your child’s third grade teacher that he may need some help making friends. Ask her if she would be willing to establish a buddy system so that each child -- including your son -- has a partner for different activities in class.

• Request that your son’s teacher ask a few of her more friendly students to spend time with your son at recess and lunch time, explaining to them how much he’ll appreciate their attention. Many kids are naturally empathic and will be flattered by getting this “task,” which can easily lead to real friendships taking hold.

• Invite a child over from your son's classroom, so they can get to know each other away from the distractions of other groups at school. Ask your son’s teacher to recommend a few kids who she thinks would be a good “match” for your son, and consider taking one them on an outing with your child, so the two can bond over a shared adventure.

• Offer your son a few suggestions for making friends. “I wonder what that boy Sam would say if you asked him if he wanted to play FourSquare with you at lunch. I noticed him looking at you yesterday on the playground, and it seemed like he wanted to play. Maybe he’s too shy to ask you!” Offer support, even role-play as you help him practice approaching a child to befriend, but don’t demand that he be more socially assertive than he is. Many children in this situation worry about disappointing mom when they tell her that they haven’t succeeded in making new friends.

• Invite another family to your house whose child is in your son’s class, to allow the kids to connect while their parents develop their own connection. This is one of the easiest and most natural ways for children to develop solid friendships.

People have an innate need to feel that they “belong.” While your son may have gotten off to a slow start, by following these tips, you should be able to help him find at least one good friend, which can make all the difference in his willingness to go to school, and more importantly, to enjoy it.

Yours in parenting support,

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.