Dear Mr. Dad: My 13-year-old son has difficulty making friends. He’s a little shy, but a nice kid. He says he’s as tried to talk to different boys at school, but claims no one likes him. How can I help?

As parents, we all want our children to be popular and well-liked by their peers, but things don’t always work out that way. Kids–just like adults–have their own personalities, and it sounds like your son may simply be less outgoing and gregarious than his schoolmates.

I’m assuming that you have ruled out medical conditions that often look a lot like shyness, such as learning disabilities, anxiety, or Asperger’s Syndrome (a developmental disorder characterized by the inability to interact successfully with peers). If you suspect a physical, mental, or emotional condition might be behind your son’s social awkwardness, ask his pediatrician to give you an assessment and, if necessary, to recommend a specialist.

Barring a medical problem, try to figure out why your son is so shy. Could he be self-conscious in social situations because he thinks he’s not interesting enough? Or maybe he lacks basic communication skills and doesn’t know how to express himself clearly. You say “he’s tried to talk to different boys at school,” but does he approach them in a confident, friendly way, or does he – unwittingly or not – send out a message that screams: “I don’t really like you!”

Boys your son’s age are typically interested in sports, music, pop culture, and so on. If he doesn’t care about any of those things, it may be hard for him to find common ground with his peers. He may, however, be interested in activities like stamp collecting, model airplanes, chess, science, computers, or square dancing. If non-traditional interests are at the root of his difficulty connecting with his schoolmates, joining a club of like-minded kids could be a good starting point for building social contacts and friendships.

Unfortunately, shy kids who are repeatedly rejected by their peers–regardless of the reasons why–often end up feeling really bad about themselves. It’s important that you keep your son from falling into that trap. Here’s how:

  • Praise him often, telling him how proud you are of his accomplishments.
  • Help him develop social and conversational skills. At the dinner table, talk about current affairs or issues that impact your family, community, or the world. Ask him to express his opinion and participate in the discussion. Discourage one-liners such as “I don’t know,” or “I don’t care.”
  • Take him along to family or community functions outside of your home so that he can learn to be comfortable in groups. And while you’re there, encourage him to participate in age-appropriate discussions.
  • Teach him that showing genuine interest in other people’s opinions and interests–even if they’re different from his own–is a good way to be liked and appreciated by others. As the old saying goes, “To have a friend, you have to be a friend.”

Finally, don’t be surprised if he outgrows his shyness. It’s not unusual for kids to be timid and unsure of themselves for a while, and then blossom later. And even your son—like many adults—never completely outgrows his shyness and never gets completely comfortable making friends, always accept and respect his individuality. Some of us do better with a small group of good friends, others need a stadium full. Bottom line: as long as your son is comfortable and thrives in whatever social context he chooses for himself, he’ll be fine.