Not only is having friends fun, but it also has a positive developmental influence on social and emotional skills to teach kids how to get along with others and interact with the world. "Friendships are critical to helping children improve their communication, sharing, empathy, problem-solving, and creativity," says Rachelle Theise, Psy.D., a clinical assistant professor and child psychologist at the NYU Child Study Center in New York City.
While some kids are natural social butterflies, others need more time to warm up to new situations. Do you notice that your child hovers the margins of the playground unsure of how to assert himself, or feels squeamish in social experiences?
As parents, we can meet our child where they are, and help teach them skills to feel more confident and comfortable making friends. Rachel Busman, PsyD, a psychologist who works with anxious kids, explains, “Different children in the same family can have different social limits and degrees of comfort. For kids who struggle with these skills, we want to give them opportunities to meet new kids, yet we also want to help bridge the transition so they aren’t too uncomfortable. We don’t want to throw them off the diving board, but rather ease them toward the deep end.”
And while parents can’t make friends for their children, decades of research suggest that parents play a big role in teaching children the skills required to make friends.
Ten Ways To Help Your Child Make Friends
1. Be a fly on the wall
Take time to observe your child and understand how they socialize with others.
- Does your child behave differently around others than they do at home? If so, why could this be?
- Does your child prefer to keep to himself and observe, or does he prefer to join in the group?
- What skills does your child seem to have the most difficulty with - questioning, sharing, or extending invitations?
2. Celebrate your child for who they are
Be realistic and accepting of your child’s unique personality and temperament, which guides how much social interaction they seek. Just because social situations are easy/difficult for you, doesn’t mean it will be the same for your child. Instead, notice who your child is innately, and honor it. Dr. Eastman shares, “It’s tough when a parent’s normal doesn’t line up with a child’s normal. As long as your kids are doing things they want to do and are happy and well-adjusted, that’s good.”
3. Model positive social behavior
Every time you interact with others, your child is aware. Whether you’re saying hi to someone as you pass by in the grocery store or strike up a conversation with the neighbor, every situation is a learning opportunity for your child to see how you join in, conversate, problem-solve, and invite others to do something.
4. Be an emotion coach
Kids first learn about social and emotional skills - the keystones to communication and making friends - at home. Help your child notice bodily sensations (such as mad, sad, calm, and happy), name them, and select strategies to regulate their bodies. Using a Calming Corner is a great way to create a safe space for children to feel and develop the foundation of self-awareness, social awareness, empathy, problem-solving, and making amends. Knowing these emotions can help them feel confident enough to cross barriers to making friends.
If your child has difficulty starting conversations with peers, practice at home.
- Conversation is the trading of information. Discuss topics with your child that interests her and that she may like to talk about with other kids. In addition, help her brainstorm questions to ask other kids about themselves, too.
- A part of communication is active listening. Teach your child how to pause and listen before following up with a response, or ask a question of their own. Once children learn how to question-ask, listen, and follow-up, they are better able to make connections with others.
- For a friendship to begin, someone has to take action. This can be as simple as a smile, and grow towards the invitation to do something or it can be joining in with what a child or group is already doing. Explain this concept and brainstorm simple, low-risk invitations: Do you want to play during recess? May I sit next to you?
6. Start in familiar territory
Children who feel less confident in social situations often feel more comfortable in their own home. To help put your child at ease, plan a playdate on his home-turf where everything is familiar, and he is not overwhelmed with being in a new environment. Practicing and rehearsing social skills in a safe and warm environment will support your child by teaching him social cues and age-appropriate social skills.
7. Practice outside of the home
As your child becomes more comfortable, help her stretch her comfort zone to outside of the home. Perhaps take her to a park and choose another child to approach. Maybe at first, it’s just a smile, and then to say hi. Then, progress to exchanging names. From there, practice asking to join in the play and then inviting others to join in, too. Eventually, your child will feel more comfortable and can sequence the steps on her own.
One mom shares, “I took my five-year-old to the park and we walked hand-in-hand to another child. I offered a hello, my name, helped my child introduce himself, and bridged the gap by helping my child ask to join in the game of tag. Eventually, we progressed to where we walked up together, but he would do the talking. And now, he runs off on his own and takes the lead. It took time and teaching, but he got there.”
8. Be a guide by the side
Be there to guide your children from the sidelines without robbing them of the chance to explore and develop their own social skills. Children learn from the natural consequences of their actions. The trial and error involved in making friends and trying new things help build resilience and grit.
9. Play games
Several studies have shown that children feel more comfortable participating in cooperative games and activities where they share a common goal as opposed to competitive games. If your child is new to building social skills, this may be a good place to start.
But, games, in general, are a great way to help your child learn many skills such as communication, impulse control, taking turns, interpreting social situations, and more. Once your child learns how to play a game, encourage them to invite their sibling or a friend to join.
10. Read books
Children learn so much through the play and wonder of a good book. Look for books that feature friendships, compassion, sharing, inclusion, and books that encourage self-love and self-esteem. As you read, talk about what the characters may be feeling, why they chose certain actions, and what they could do differently. By exploring the story’s characters, your child will learn a great deal about friendship.
Making friends isn’t always something that happens poof! overnight. It involves many important social-emotional skills such as self-awareness, empathy, problem-solving, communication, and more. Parents can introduce these important tidbits from the youngest of ages and continue to build on them as their child grows.
As children step out on their journey to making friends, reinforce their behavior and celebrate their small successes. Because let’s face it, we aren’t just their parents - we are their biggest fans and best coaches.