Challenges of expat life: Making new friends

Expats, who are globally mobile and move every few years, often have to make new friends with each move. Helen Rudinsky writes that making new friends can be a challenge, especially for children, shy people, or individuals with limited social skills.

Challenges of expat life: Making new friends
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As a Marriage and Family Therapist serving couples, families and children in Vienna's expat community, I find that a major stress point for expat parents is when their child is having difficulty making friends and adjusting to school. Having friends is critical for children. The following pointers will help you assist your child in making friends.

While this article is written to help parents, the principles are the same for an expat employee working in a new office, or a trailing spouse joining a new social group.

Children learn social skills from parents, therefore a parent with good social skills will automatically better equip their child for making friends than a parent with limited social skills. Everyone can improve his or her social skills and it is never too late to learn how to be a good friend!

Step 1: Getting a Friendship Going: Greeting, Compliments and Kindness

The first step towards a new friendship involves showing someone that we like him or her. This can be done by a friendly greeting, using a first name, making eye contact, and smiling warmly. Shy children often have trouble with this. If another child says “Hi!” to them, they may look away, or just mumble in response. If this sounds like your child, you may need to coach him or her by role-playing ways to greet others.

Complimenting someone is also an effective way to show him or her you are open to a friendship. Brainstorm with your child ways to compliment new classmates: “Nice shot!” for a kid playing basketball in the playground, or “Your sweater is pretty!” for a child wearing a new outfit. 

Acts of kindness are also a way to signal our interest in friendship: lending a pencil, sharing a snack, and saving a seat for someone are some of the best ways to begin a friendship.

Step 2: Finding Common Ground

Children tend to be friends with other children who are similar to them in age, gender, ethnicity, interests, social skills and academic achievement. Friendships start with connection – it is important that your child develop or discover those “me, too!”  areas they have with others.

Here’s a way to explain the concept of common ground to your child: Draw two overlapping circles and explain “This circle is you. The other circle is John. The part in the middle – the overlap – is your friendship with John.”

Brainstorm with your child, “How can you know what you have in common with John?” Answers could include watching him, asking him questions, or doing things together to create shared experiences.

Step 3: Sharing Fun together

Researchers have found that a key predictor to whether children “hit it off” is the extent to which they are able to sustain shared activity while playing together. As many parents know, this is not as simple as it sounds. To have fun with a peer, a child needs to behave in ways that the other child enjoys, communicate about his or her likes and dislikes, and resolve any disagreements peacefully.

Things can easily go wrong: one child ignores or walks away from the other child, one refuses to share toys, or one bosses the other child around.

Step 4: Playing Together

Once your child has made an initial connection with a peer, help him or her arrange a one-on-one, activity-based play date. Planning ahead can ensure that the play time together involves shared fun.

Help your child figure out what to do beforehand. Good ideas for shared activity include: baking cookies, making pizza, riding bikes, practising basketball, or watching a movie together. If the shared activity is fun, the other child will associate your child with fun, which moves them toward towards friendship.

Listen for conflicts that aren’t quickly resolved. If your child gets upset, you may need to pull him or her quietly aside and help your child figure out how to move forward. Or you may want to step in to offer both children a timely snack. Having a short break can help them regroup and get back to having fun together.

(Excerpts taken from “Growing Friendships” by Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D)

Helen Rudinsky offers therapy and counselling in English to couples, individuals and children, with face-to-face sessions and via Skype.

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