Not all kids fill their summers with carefree days making up games and playing outside with friends. Sadly, some children have a difficult time connecting with other kids and, as a result, have few friends come back-to-school in September. For them, the summer months are long and lonely.
But you and your child can seize summer vacation as an opportunity to practice interacting with other kids, taking full advantage of the fresh start your he'll get when school starts again in the fall.
"This is your golden opportunity," says Fred Frankel, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California-Los Angeles.
Identifying the Problem
The first step is to find the exact source of your child's trouble, says Lucy Fox, a mental health clinician at the Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood, a North Carolina agency focused on children's emotional development. Fox advises quietly observing how your child interacts with other kids and noting when she has problems.
Parents who have a positive, comfortable relationship with their kid will find it easier to talk with their little one about the difficulties and fears he has about getting along with others, Fox adds.
While every child is different there are two basic types of kids who have a hard time with others, says Frankel, author of Friends Forever: How Parents Can Help Their Kids Make and Keep Good Friends.
Some kids are too aggressive, turning the other kids away. If a group of children is playing soccer, for example, "They barge in the game, they don't wait to be picked, then they tell the other kids everything they're doing wrong," Frankel says. An observant parent can pull the child aside and tell him it's better to wait for a natural break in the game and offer to join the team that could most use his help.
Frankel says it also helps to invite kids over for one-on-one play dates with your child. If he's being a poor host, you can have a quiet talk about better ways to behave.
Other children are shy and afraid of approaching kids they want to play with. This fear disappears when your child's around those he already knows.
Frankel says you can help a shy child by taking him to a place with other kids, like a park, and spending time near those children. Then, encourage your little introvert to ask to play—or the other kids might ask him themselves.
As a parent, how can you help your kid be ready to branch out and make new pals come September? Experts offer six pointers:
- Talk with your child and figure out a hurdle small enough to be manageable, Fox says. If your child is shy, a hurdle might be asking the cashier at a fast-food restaurant for extra ketchup. Or you can encourage your little one to call a neighbor and invite her over to play.
- Find day camps that tap into your child's interests. If he enjoys crafts he'd probably love an art camp. A nature camp is perfect for a budding explorer who likes playing outside. Natalie Elman, founder of The Summit Center for Learning in New Jersey, says special-interest camps create a natural connection between your child and his fellow campers. "They're already doing something they really like with kids they already have something in common with," Elman says.
- Ask your child who he plays with during camps or other activities. Then ask your child to point out his playmates when you pick him up at the end of the day, which means you can approach these kids' parents and set up a play date at your home.
- Elman also suggests asking your child's school for the names of some kids who will be in his class come fall. Schools often have a good idea of what class rosters will look like long before classes start, she says, and a school secretary or principal should be able to give you a few names. Invite those children over for play dates. Kids who just moved to your area will be especially grateful for the invitation. "If they get to know these kids one-on-one, then they'll have some relationships when school starts," says Elman, co-author of The Unwritten Rules of Friendship: Simple Strategies to Help Your Child Make Friends.
- Keep play dates focused on a specific activity, Elman advises. Your kid might like an afternoon at the playground, the pool or a family fun center.
- Role-play with your child about situations she has the most difficulty with. Practice at home or on the way to the park what he can say to join in a game or ask a peer to play.