Tips for Helping Young Kids Make Friends
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Your three-year-old son stands alone on the playground watching the other kids play. Your six-year-old daughter comes home saying that she has no friends and nobody likes her. For young children, remaining friendless can be painful and confusing. The good news for parents, though, is that most children can be helped – to the point where, years later, they feel comfortable making and keeping friends on their own.
The first step to helping your child make friends is figuring out whether he is missing some basic social skills. Especially at a young age, this is a normal problem that parents and other adults can help children cope with. For example, you child might be overly shy and not know how to initiate conversations or play with other children.
Alternatively, they may have trouble sharing, working as a team, cooperating, or playing reciprocally without bossing other kids around. Other kids may be extremely sensitive, leading causing them to feel hurt or angry very easily. These children may be distrustful of those around them, making it difficult for their peers to play with them.
If your child fits into any of these categories, here are some tips you can use to help them succeed socially:
- Remember that childhood is a time of learning. “During childhood, kids are still learning how to manage their feelings, work together with others – all important skills that they need learn in order to succeed in adult relationships,” explains Dr. Jennifer Cassatly, a Los Angeles-based psychologist who specializes in child and family therapy. Discuss with your child how she can initiate a conversation or ask to join a group of kids on the playground. For example, you can tell your child a story about a rabbit who had trouble sharing and ask for ideas about what the rabbit could do to make friends. Dr. Cassatly suggests that many parents may prefer to use characters from stories or television shows that their children are already familiar with. Just make sure to stay calm, and remember that your child is learning how to interact with other people at a pace that is not atypical for her age.
- Remember that all kids are different. Just because your child is shy doesn’t mean that it’s a problem. One child might love going on wild rides at amusement parks and roughhousing with a large group of friends, whereas another may enjoy staying home and working in the garden or reading book, by himself or with one close friend. “Look at your child’s temperament and say ‘What does he or she prefer?’” advises Cassatly. “There is nothing inherently right or wrong about either temperament.” Point out your child’s strengths, such as building deep (albeit fewer) friendships, reflecting about various issues, or using creativity.
- Be on the lookout for other, related problems. A shy child may just be shy, and that’s fine. But if a child seems withdrawn, frequently tearful, or extremely sensitive to criticism, these may be symptoms of a deeper emotional problem such as anxiety or depression.
- Walk the tightrope between helping your child and letting her work it out on her own. Always give your child empathy, but give her space to reflect on her experience. At times, ask whether you could help by setting up a playdate, talking to a teacher, or role playing with the child – but at times, let the child work out social issues herself.
- Consider enrolling your child in a social skills group, if you see that it is an area in which he could really benefit from practice.
- If you have strong concerns about your child’s ability to make and keep friendships, or if your child’s struggles worsen over time, you should consider speaking to a professional.
- Even if your child’s social skills are age appropriate, there are ways that you can increase the likelihood of your child making friends.
- Remember that your child is not you. Just because you had a large circle of friends, doesn’t mean that your child needs more than one or two in order to feel included. And just because you were teased mercilessly throughout your school year, doesn’t mean that your less social child is a sitting duck for bullies. “Not every child is going to be – or even wants to be – the most popular child,” says Cassatly. “Some adults, even, prefer to have a smaller more close-knit group of friends. See what your child’s temperament is and work with it.”
- Get involved in your child’s school through PTA or other methods, and try to make friends with the parents of your child’s classmates. This can help you to facilitate playdates and after-school activities for your child, as well as gauge what is typical or atypical in social skills for children your child’s age.
- Talk to your child’s teacher to see who your child seems to get along with well, and set up a playdate with that child.
- Get your child involved in after-school activities, such as gymnastics, art, theater, or a team sport. You might also want to take part in local community events, such as those held by a local church, synagogue, or community center.
- Help your child get to know some of the other kids in the neighborhood. “Some of the best – and easiest – friendships for both kids and for parents are those who are geographically nearby.” After all, it’s easier to run down the block to see if a friend wants to ride bikes than to schedule and arrange a playdate with a kid who lives across town.
Choose a few of these techniques to help your child make a wider variety of friends, and you’ll be surprised with how quickly she will blossom socially.
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