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'Unwritten Rules of Friendship'

Unlike problems with math or English, it's not easy for parents to help children who have difficulty making friends.

Not only are social deficits harder to fix, the effects continue to be "crippling long after graduation and in just about every area of life," says Natalie Madorsky Elman, Ph.D., author of "The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Simple Strategies To Help Your Child Make Friends."

She told The Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm, "There are many different types of children who have difficulty relating to other children, who obviously have not picked up on 'The Unwritten Rules' specific to their individual type. We have: the vulnerable child, the intimidating child, the pessimistic child, the short fuse child, the little adult, the born leader - the bossy child."

She notes, "The world is filled with unwritten rules...most of us can just pull from our environment and know what we're supposed to do -- like being in an elevator and knowing you stand looking straight rather than turning around and looking at the other people."

The good news is that parents can make their child's life easier. In her book, she provides tips and tools for both parents and their children.

Read an excerpt from Chapter One.

The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Simple Strategies Every Child Needs to Know

It's happening again. Your child runs into the house and cries,

"Mommy, nobody wants to play with me."

"All the kids are picking on me."

"Nobody likes me."

Remarks like these break a parent's heart. You see how crushed your child feels. You worry and wonder, Why don't the other kids like her? Or maybe you have some inkling that your child is doing something to drive other kids away. You feel frustrated and think, If only she weren't so shy, or so bossy, or so aggressive, or such a sore loser . . . Mostly, you feel helpless. As much as you'd like to, you know you can't make friends for your child, and you can't protect her from teasing or unkind remarks. But you wish there were something you could do to make it easier for your child to get along with others.


Almost every child has trouble with social relationships in some way, at some time. Having an argument with a friend, dealing with teasing, being excluded from a group, and trying to find a buddy in a new classroom are painful but typical childhood experiences. While some kids sail through social situations, weathering these normal friendship glitches fairly easily, others constantly struggle and flounder.

When children have trouble relating to their peers, they suffer. Other kids reject, ridicule, or ignore them. They feel lonely and isolated. Moreover, children rarely just outgrow social problems. Elementary school children who don't have a best friend tend to become lonely young adults.

Friendship problems are painful and can often lead to far-reaching consequences. If your child has problems with math, he can always use a calculator when he is older. If he is a poor speller, he can rely on a dictionary or the spelling checker on a computer. However, as Dr. Melvin Levine of the University of North Carolina Medical School points out, if your child has social deficits, the effects continue to be crippling long after graduation and in just about every area of life. Problems making friends can persist into adulthood, keeping your child trapped in the role of "outsider." Social difficulties can also limit your child's future professional opportunities by compromising his or her ability to work effectively with bosses, clients, and coworkers. Social problems can even interfere with your child's ability to find a loving spouse, to build a strong marriage, and to raise children.

The good news is that you can help your child learn to get along with others. Using this book as a guide, you can pinpoint your child's particular social strengths and weaknesses. You can spell out for your child the Unwritten Rules that underlie social situations. With these rules as an essential foundation, you can teach your child the necessary skills for building, sustaining, and repairing friendships.


Every social interaction is governed by Unwritten Rules. These rules explain how to interpret social cues and how to act appropriately in social situations. They describe the implicit knowledge, the unspoken subtext, that flows like a current through social relationships. They can be as simple as "Greet people you know" or as complex as "In every good negotiation, both sides win something."

The Unwritten Rules are guidelines rather than restrictions. They make human interactions proceed smoothly and comfortably. Knowing these rules is essential in navigating the social world capably.

Unwritten Rules are culturally based. For instance, in American culture, direct eye contact is expected when conversing with others. It's a sign of interest, honesty, and sincerity. In other cultures, direct eye contact is disrespectful. Even within the United States, there are variations in the Unwritten Rules. People from New York City tend to speak quickly, whereas a more leisurely pace of speaking is the norm in other parts of the country. In this book, we focus on the rules that seem most critical for children's relationships, but depending on where you live, you may need to modify them somewhat.

Unwritten Rules are everywhere, in every social situation. In a restaurant, you know to listen politely while the server describes the specials for the evening. That's an Unwritten Rule. At work, you know that it's not a good idea to ask the boss for a raise right after she's chewed you out for missing a deadline. That's another Unwritten Rule. If you think about it, you can probably come up with hundreds of Unwritten Rules that guide your behavior every day.

These rules are rarely stated, but most people have an intuitive understanding of them. When you get into an elevator, the first thing you do is turn around and face the doors. You probably never had any specific lessons in elevator etiquette, but somehow you learned this Unwritten Rule. If you were to break this rule and remain standing with your back to the doors, people would think you were strange.

The Unwritten Rules of social situations are so ingrained that the idea of breaking them seems peculiar, even laughable. You know that to get the attention of the person in line ahead of you, you should tap her on the shoulder, not pat her on the head. You know never to ask an acquaintance how much money she earns. You know not to describe your hemorrhoids to a stranger.


The key factor that determines how smoothly children (and adults) get along with others is whether or not they understand and can follow the Unwritten Rules that guide social relationships. Some children pick up these rules automatically; others are oblivious to them. Like rudderless ships, they easily veer off course in social situations. They come on too strong, or they are too passive, or they stick out in a way that makes others reject them. They are targets for bullies. They feel awkward in groups because they don't recognize the social cues influencing everyone else's behavior. They wish desperately for friends but don't understand the nuances of cultivating relationships. They may feel lonely and isolated, as if they were strangers in a foreign country where they don't speak the language.

Sometimes children have social problems when they move to a new town or a new school. They may have been getting along fine in their old environment, but suddenly the rules change, and they are at a loss. For instance, if your child recently moved from the city to the suburbs, the rules about how to dress, how to spend time together, and even how to talk may be very different in his or her new community. Also, the kids who knew your child since nursery school may have accepted his or her idiosyncrasies, but new classmates may be less tolerant.

The Unwritten Rules for children are not identical to those for adults. For instance, a firm handshake is essential for adults but irrelevant for children. Asking the age of a new acquaintance is rude for adults but is a friendly overture for children. Making disgusting burping noises is an admirable skill only among boys of a certain age.

The Unwritten Rules that we present in this book are drawn, as much as possible, from research studies of children interacting in ordinary settings, such as camp or the local playground. These observational studies help us understand how socially adept children actually relate to other children so we don't have to rely on our adult ideas of how children should behave.

Unless they know the Unwritten Rules of social situations, children cannot possibly use social skills appropriately. Teaching children about social skills without placing these skills in the context of Unwritten Rules is like teaching children to sail on dry land. They may learn the mechanics perfectly, but they don't really understand when and how to use them. What difference does it make if a child has learned to make "I" statements (e.g., "I feel . . . when you . . .") if she doesn't understand the rules about which topics are acceptable to discuss in which situations? What good is it if a child can list all the steps in problem solving but doesn't know that new relationships cannot tolerate conflict? Social skills training tells children how to act. The Unwritten Rules go beyond this basic training by helping children understand social roles and expectations so that they can choose behaviors that fit the situation.

By explicitly teaching the Unwritten Rules of how to get along with others, you can provide your child with essential guidelines for navigating the social maze. You can unveil for your child the unspoken social conventions that everybody else seems to know. You can give your child the knowledge necessary for making and keeping friends.


Our goal in this book is to help each child gain a sense of social comfort and connection in a way that complements his or her own unique personality. We've drawn upon research, as well as clinical experience, to come up with vivid and compassionate descriptions of nine prototypical children with friendship problems. These nine children are normal kids who struggle to be accepted by their peers. We highlight the particular Unwritten Rules that each type of child needs to learn, and we offer easy-to-use, targeted suggestions for teaching these rules and enhancing social interactions both at home and at school.

We use a whole-child perspective, which recognizes that children with specific social problems also have corresponding strengths that can be cultivated. The Shy Child can become a good listener and a loyal friend. The Vulnerable Child might acquire a highly developed sense of justice and a special empathy for the downtrodden.

Our whole-child perspective works with rather than against children's enduring tendencies. Not every child can or wants to become an effervescent Mr. or Ms. Popularity who is the life of every party. And this is fine. A quieter style of relating can also lead to friendship. The Born Leader may always be more comfortable leading than following a group, but she can learn how to temper her take-charge tendencies so that other people respond to her ideas with enthusiasm rather than resistance or resentment. The Different Drummer may always have an offbeat, quirky sense of humor, but learning the Unwritten Rules can help her decide when and how to use that humor.

The brief descriptions of children in the table of contents and the questions at the beginning of each chapter can help you identify which sections of this book are most relevant for helping your child learn to relate well to others. You will probably recognize your child in several different chapters. At the end of each chapter, we list related chapters that you may want to read. Keep in mind that the nine children in this book are composites of the many children we've known. We offer these descriptions to help you understand rather than just label your child. Whether your child is having trouble resolving an argument with a friend or even making a friend in the first place, whether your child is painfully shy or a bit rambunctious, this book gives you the tools you need to nurture your child's social well-being.


Children need friends. Friends are a source of fun and companionship. Building a fort in the backyard is more fun if you have a buddy to help. Friends also help children develop a sense of who they are: "Jason and I both love soccer"; "Karen's favorite color is purple, but I like yellow." Children's friendships are a critical training ground for learning how to get along with other people. When two small girls negotiate who gets to wear the sequined dress and who gets to wear the feather boa, they are learning skills that they will use in all future relationships. Through their friendships, children learn about leading and following, arguing and making up, sharing and feeling empathy.

Having friends helps children feel happy, confident, and connected, but children aren't born knowing how to build friendships. They learn it. When your child was two years old, she probably played alongside another child without interacting. At three, she probably began cooperative play, working with another child toward a shared goal. At four, maybe she could share or take turns without shrieking.

Now, in elementary school, friendships are more complicated, and the rules governing how to fit in can be subtle. Very young children tend to identify their friends as whomever they happen to be with at the moment, but elementary school children can identify best friends and begin to form bonds. For preschoolers, the key challenges of social relationships usually involve remembering not to hit or snatch toys. Your elementary school child needs much more complex social knowledge and abilities, such as how to blend in to a group, how to behave differently in a beginning versus an established friendship, and how to resolve conflicts.

Each chapter in this book describes specific strategies that address particular social difficulties common among elementary school children (approximately ages six through twelve). We offer many exercises for learning the Unwritten Rules so that you can choose the ones that seem best suited to your child's needs, interests, and maturity level. You should also keep the following general guidelines in mind while teaching your child to relate well to others.

1. Talk with your child's teacher.

If your child is having social problems, it is essential that you talk with his or her teacher to get an objective opinion on the matter. Your child might complain, "Everybody hates me!" but the teacher might paint a very different picture. Maybe there is just one particular classmate who squabbles with your child. Maybe your child is generally well-liked but hangs back in group situations. The teacher sees your child "in action" every day and could give you important information about your child's behavior around other kids. What you see at home may not be typical of how your child acts at school. Your son might be a little chatterbox with the family but completely silent with classmates. Or maybe your daughter is doing something that classmates find off-putting. You need to know the whole picture if you're going to help your child learn to get along better.

The teacher can also be a wonderful ally in helping your child learn the relevant Unwritten Rules. At the end of each chapter, we feature a section called "The Home-School Connection," which offers doable suggestions that you might want to discuss with your child's teacher.

2. Provide opportunities for socializing.

In previous generations, children learned social skills by hanging out with the kids in the neighborhood and by interacting with large and extended families. Today, many parents are too concerned about safety to allow their children to roam the neighborhood unsupervised. Most children have many structured activities and lessons, leaving them less time to simply play with others. Families are generally smaller and more transient, so children have fewer siblings and relatives with whom to practice their social skills. All of this means that it is harder for today's children to learn through hands-on experience how to get along with other children.

You need to give your child the opportunity to practice relating to peers. Usually this means scheduling one-on-one play dates. In our experience, short play dates that focus on a planned activity, such as going bowling or going out for ice cream, work best for children who are struggling socially.

You may also need to help your child find potential friends outside of school. If your child is having trouble with classmates, he or she might fit in better with kids from your church or synagogue, or with the members of a club that focuses on special interests, such as chess or horseback riding. Some children feel more confident interacting with kids a little bit younger than they are. If your child has cousins around his or her age, they could be a great source of support. Because they are family members, cousins may be a little more tolerant of your child than the kids at school are, and they can give your child a sustaining sense of belonging. Being included in the activities of a more socially savvy cousin could also help your child smooth some rough edges.

3. Proceed slowly and consistently.

Once you see how learning the Unwritten Rules could help your child, you may be tempted to sit your child down and go through a chapter or two with him or her in one sitting. Don't. You're better off taking a more gradual approach. Children have short attention spans (some more than others). If you try to teach too much too fast, your child is likely to become bored, anxious, or overwhelmed. Give your child a chance to get comfortable with one idea or strategy before you move on to another. Try taking a low-key, fun approach when you do the exercises with your child. Learning to make and keep friends is important, but you don't want it to dominate your interactions with your child. Your child needs your social coaching, but your child also needs to feel your love and acceptance, and to spend time with you just playing or hanging out.

Keep in mind that there are no quick fixes for helping your child relate better to others. Don't try just one activity and conclude, "This book doesn't work." For many children, learning the Unwritten Rules is like learning a foreign language. It takes time and experience to master the material. Your child will need ongoing exposure to the rules, practice using them, and reminders before entering specific difficult situations. You may also need to revisit the Unwritten Rules as your child gets older and social situations become even more complex. Learning to get along with others is a lifelong process. With every new relationship and every new stage of life, we all need to learn and change.

4. Share your confidence.

Children often have trouble with perspective. If someone doesn't invite them to a birthday party, they react like it's the worst thing in the world. If kids are mean to them, they assume that this will always be the case. As adults, we know that circumstances change, that people grow, and that there's a big wide world outside of this year's elementary school class. So, when your child comes home crying because "everyone" was mean to him or her, listen, empathize, try to understand your child's point of view, but also express your confidence that, with help, your child will be able to find a way to deal with the situation.

As you work on the exercises in this book, keep the focus on success rather than failure. Applaud when your child is able to implement the techniques in the book. Comment on how he or she is becoming more comfortable socially. Warn your child that it may take a while for other kids to notice the changes he or she is making, but assure your child that these efforts will pay off. Avoid what Dr. Michael Thompson and his colleagues, authors of Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children, call "interviewing for pain." If you greet your child every day after school by asking, "Was anyone mean to you today?" your child is going to come up with something to report.

It's hard to respond calmly when your child is hurting. Seeing your child suffer can make you want to leap into action to protect him or her. Sometimes parents of children who are the brunt of ridicule or rejection wonder if they should call the parents of the other child. In general, we don't recommend this. If your child is truly in danger, of course you need to take steps to ensure his or her safety, but this is usually best accomplished by talking to school authorities. Contacting the other child's parents carries the risk of spreading the conflict to the parents. It also says to your child, "You can't handle this. I need to solve it for you." You should only give this message if it really is a situation that your child can't manage alone. Otherwise, focus on giving your child the knowledge, skills, and support he or she needs to solve the problem.

5. Emphasize kindness.

At their core, the Unwritten Rules are about kindness and civility. They emphasize talking and listening to one another, respecting and caring about one another, and reaching out to help one another. True friendship grows from a sense of connection. The best thing you can do to help your child learn to get along with others is to place a high value on kindness. Don't tolerate cruelty between siblings. Point out the impact of your child's words and actions on others. Insist that family members speak to one another in a respectful tone of voice. Let your child experience the joy of giving. Avoid putting other people down. Talk about how you can understand someone else's point of view even when you don't agree with it. Express appreciation when your child does something thoughtful or helpful. These actions demonstrate the fundamentals of social relationships described in the Unwritten Rules.

Copyright © 2003 by Natalie Madorsky Elman and Eileen Kennedy-Moore

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