Friends play an important role during back to school time, and it's not just about creating fond memories. “Children who have high levels of social/emotional skills do better academically in school, are healthier, and have a greater sense of well being,” says author and psycho-educational specialist Andrea Weiner, Ed.D.

But making friends is difficult and frustrating for some kids. Not to worry, says Weiner: “With help, any child can learn social skills to relate to others, and this is invaluable in making new friends.”

Weiner adds that the social skills a child needs include “being able to understand and identify one's feelings and be able to express them appropriately, using optimistic thinking to overcome any life challenges, having empathy for others, and knowing how to relate to others through listening, communicating, and establishing rapport.”

One great strategy for teaching your child those skills is to use the 5 senses. Here's how it works:

Look If your child is shy, he may have a tendency to look down, or away, when talking to others. The problem is, most people see someone who doesn’t make eye contact as being untrustworthy. This gives shy people an extra stumbling block when it comes to making friends.

Teach your child how to make eye contact when speaking or listening to others, and to keep his gaze friendly rather than staring intensely. He can practice this by making eye contact with you, or with himself in a mirror – often much harder than it sounds!

Weiner adds, “Parents can practice helping their children identify emotions by using a mirror to show them what various emotions look like facially as well as in their body. Once children know what these feelings are, they can learn how to express them appropriately.”

Also lead by example. “Since children are sponges and tend to imitate others around them, parents can be role models or ‘ambassadors of social/emotional skills’ for their kids to learn from.”

Listen A good friend is one who listens to what others say, with genuine interest. Weiner explains that children with more friends “are usually more empathetic to others and tuned into other people's feelings; they are kind and compassionate, which are byproducts of empathy; they listen well to others so they know how to respond and communicate back; and they can establish rapport through conversation and body language that invites children and others to want to be their friend.”

You can develop your child’s listening skills at home by telling him a story, and having him repeat it back to you in his own words. If he misses an important point, tell him, and then let him try again.

Touch We “touch” others by talking, and this can be difficult for some kids. Ruth Peters, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and parenting contributor to NBC’s Today Show, has some suggestions to help even shy children speak to others. She says parents should encourage children to:

  1. Ask other people about themselves – kids love to talk about their own interests, hobbies and successes.
  2. Use other people's first names as frequently as possible. There’s nothing sweeter than the sound of one’s own name, and it truly shows your interest in that person.
  3. Compliment a new outfit or hair style. Perhaps you’ll receive a flattering remark in return!
  4. Watch for negatives in your conversations with people. 

Smell Teach your child to “sniff out” where like-minded kids hang out by encouraging him to join a club, sports team, or other extracurricular activity, or to take a class related to one of his interests.

Taste Your child can give other kids a “taste” of what he has to offer, and what he’d like in return. Encourage him to smile, be friendly, be a team player when working with others, and be a good sport, always congratulating those who do well.

Weiner says, “To have friends, you have to be a friend back.” Peters adds, “Be the friend that you would like to have. Plain and simple.”