We all want our children to be socially successful. While they don’t need to be the most popular kid in the class, we do hope that they will have friends.

Friendships are one of the biggest sources of fun in a kid’s life, which is reason enough to value them. But they are also critical to development. They lay the groundwork for lifelong skills like listening to others, solving problems and self-expression. They are also an important source of confidence. As kids get older their friendships start playing an even bigger role in their emotional and personal lives.

When kids don’t have these relationships, it can have a serious impact on their mood, confidence and functioning. Going to school every day can be a trial. Using social media can be depressing. Kids who are lonely often feel rejected, invisible or like something is wrong with them. And parents watching from the sidelines wonder what they can do to help.

Why kids might be struggling socially

It hurts when you see that your child isn’t making friends, and you can’t figure out why — or how to help. Here are some potential reasons why a child may be striking out on connecting with other kids:

They don’t understand how to socialize. The rules of social interaction might seem obvious to you, but they do need to be learned. And while most kids pick up social cues and patterns so easily it seems automatic, some don’t, and need more support — and practice. This is particularly true for kids with ADHD, autism and non-verbal learning disorder. When one child isn’t understanding their peers’ expectations about how to decide what to play, how to share, when to talk and how to show that they’re listening, they’re going to find it harder to make friends.

They’re anxious. It is common for kids — and adults — to feel anxiety when they come into a new social situation or join a group. This shows up in young kids who can’t join in activities on the playground, or at birthday parties that are supposed to be fun but are actually overwhelming. Social anxiety gets more common as kids get older. Some kids with severe social anxiety may be paralyzed with worry that others are judging them. They might weigh every word in a text message and worry so much about how they look or what they say that they stop hanging out with friends. They may be so self-conscious they even stop eating in the school cafeteria.

They’re depressed. A major symptom of depression is a tendency to withdraw from others. While they might have fun with friends once they’re hanging out, a kid with depression will first need to be compelled to leave their room. Kids who are depressed are also more likely to interpret things negatively and assume other people don’t want to see them.

They don’t “fit in.” For some children, the problem is more environmental. “Something we talk about with some kids is the idea of being a rose in a tulip garden,” says Lauren Allerhand, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “So maybe it’s not a lack of skills, but you’re just in an environment where people don’t have the same ideas or interests as you, and you’re just having a real challenge finding your group of people.”

They’re immature. Kids may struggle to fit in when they are younger than their classmates or just slower to mature. They might not have developed the same social skills as their peers yet, or they might just have different interests. As kids get older they tend to catch up, but in the meantime they may be feeling confused and lonely.

How to tell if your child is lonely

When kids spend a lot of time alone, you might suspect they are lonely. But unless they complain that they don’t have friends or are obviously unhappy, parents can be left to wonder how much it’s upsetting them.

Kids might not volunteer to discuss it with you. This is particularly the case with teenagers, but kids of all ages might feel some reluctance about admitting how they feel. It can help if you start the conversation by talking about times in your life when you have felt lonely, says Dr. Allerhand. “Sharing a little bit can open the door for kids to express some of what they’re feeling. But I wouldn’t push too hard. If they don’t want to tell you, give it a try again in the next day or two.”

Other kids, especially very young children and kids on the spectrum, might not know how to explain what they’re feeling. “For individuals with autism, sometimes communicating their own experiences can be quite challenging. They often can have a hard time linking what they’re feeling and what their experience is with a specific word that others may use for that experience,” says Bethany Vibert, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. When asked point blank if they are lonely an autistic child might say no, but if you probed a little deeper you might find that they do actually wish they had friends.

For kids who are younger or struggle with emotion identification, first teaching what loneliness is can help. Sharing your own experience of feeling lonely is also a good strategy here. Dr. Vibert recommends that you might say something simple like, “When I haven’t been around people for a while, sometimes I want to spend time with somebody. That means I’m feeling lonely.” Dr. Vibert also suggests asking kids what they’d want to do if they could be doing anything. What they have to say could give you clues about what they might be missing out on.

What to say (and what not to say)

As parents we often want to immediately jump into problem solving mode whenever our child is having an issue. But it’s a better idea to slow down and just listen to what your kid has to say, first. Giving kids the space to open up and feel heard lets them know that it’s okay to talk about emotions — and that you’re a good person to turn to whenever they need help. For kids who might be feeling rejected or invisible, showing that you care will also be particularly meaningful to them. Waiting to hear more will help you be more supportive later, too. “If we don’t give them space to just talk, we might be coming up with a solution that’s not really a good fit for the actual problem,” points out Dr. Vibert.

Here are some strategies for a good conversation:

Ask open-ended questions. For example, if your child says they miss spending time with someone they used to see a lot, you can ask questions about that. “What did you really like doing with her? What do you miss the most about seeing her?”

Make observations. Sometimes comments are a good alternative to questions. So, if you notice that your child isn’t spending time with people as much as they used to, you might point that out. Then leave space for them to talk.

Validate their experiences. Showing genuine interest goes a long way. Do your best to listen without judgment (or visible panic) to whatever they have to say. Try also to avoid overreacting with too much sympathy or emotion, since that might make them feel even worse. You can show that you’re listening by reflecting back what they’re saying (“It sounds like you’re having a hard time”), or saying supportive things like “That sounds tough. Would you tell me more about that?”

How to help kids who are struggling socially

Make a plan. When something is confusing or intimidating it is often helpful to break it into smaller steps. So if your child is struggling to ask someone if they want to hang out, for example, you can work with them to come up with a plan for how to do it. Dr. Vibert recommends having a plan A and a plan B just in case. “If the child is already feeling lonely and then they’re putting themselves in a vulnerable position to reach out to somebody, I think it’s helpful for a parent to have them work through what to do if it doesn’t work out.” Having a plan B can help kids feel more confident going in, too.

Practice social skills. For kids who are struggling with their social skills, try to give them plenty of opportunity to practice at their own pace in a supportive environment. Coach your child on the things they find challenging — maybe settling conflict, taking turns or noticing when someone is losing interest in an activity — and try role playing to give them experience. Relatives and family friends can also help so they get practice with multiple people.

Give encouragement. Kids who are feeling anxious or depressed are less inclined to put themselves out there. “When kids say they want to stay home, it’s a challenge to figure out how much to push,” acknowledges Michelle Kaplan, LCSW, a social worker at the Child Mind Institute. “But generally, kids are able to reflect afterward that ‘Oh, that was a little less awkward than I thought,’ or ‘I had more fun than I thought I was going to.’” Validate how kids are feeling by acknowledging that going to see people might be difficult for them. Then remind them that they’re probably going to have a good time once they’re there and offer lots of support and praise for doing something challenging.

Give a reality check. Kids can sometimes struggle socially because they are prone to misunderstanding situations. This is especially easy to do with text messages, big group chats, and social media. Kids who are depressed are also more prone to interpreting things negatively even when it isn’t warranted. Dr. Allerhand has worked with teens on maintaining relationships and says that helping kids “check the facts” on a situation is important. “I think a lot of teenagers are self-focused, so they think if a relationship has fallen off, it’s because of something they’ve done. But maybe there are other interpretations.” Dr. Allerhand recommends talking it through: “‘Okay, so you haven’t spoken with Jimmy in a while. Do you have any evidence that he’s mad at you? Could there be any other reasons why you haven’t talked?’”

For kids who tend to interpret things negatively a lot, helping them notice that tendency, and reminding them when they’re doing it, can help them break the pattern.

Look elsewhere for friendships. When kids just aren’t fitting in, they might be looking in the wrong places. “Maybe they’ve done a lot of sports groups before, but they’re not actually into sports,” points out Kaplan. Try to find a group or activity that is more interesting to them. Getting involved in something they genuinely find exciting will also likely improve their confidence and sense of self-worth.

Many kids also find success turning to the internet to explore niche interests or just connect with a larger pool of kids. “One positive thing to come out of the pandemic is there are more and more virtual groups for kids to come online and meet with other kids that have similar interests to them,” says Kaplan.

But if your child does turn to the internet, make sure they stay safe. “Children with autism and developmental disabilities may have more difficulty determining if a situation is dangerous,” notes Dr. Vibert. “It’s very important that parents be not only involved, but proactive in providing education to their child about safety and danger online.”

How to evaluate screen time

If you’re worried that all your child seems to want to do is stare at a screen, keep in mind that screens have become a major way that kids interact with each other. While they don’t make up for in-person socializing, your child may be socializing more than you realize. Thanks to social media kids are often in closer communication with their peers than parents realize. Video games can also be a lot more social than they may initially seem.

“I often suggest that parents sit by kids while they’re playing games and try to gauge how much they’re connecting with peers,” Kaplan explains. “Don’t ask a ton of questions, but maybe you can ask things like: Is there anyone else you’re playing with? Who are those kids? What are you guys working on? Do you see those kids each time you play? Are there new kids that come on? These kinds of questions can help you assess how much socializing is happening.”

Some kids tend to be more comfortable socializing online and find a lot of fulfillment that way. But while the internet can be a lifesaver for kids who are struggling to fit in otherwise, socializing offline is still important. So if your child is struggling with in-person socialization, talking to a clinician who specializes in children’s mental health about how to get your child more comfortable with other people is important.