10 Tips for Helping Young Kids Make Friends

Parents often feel helpless watching their kids struggle to make friends or fit in at school, whether it's because of clumsy social skills, an emotional problem or just bad luck. There's little you as a parent can do to suddenly make other kids like your child. But you can guide her down the right path and put her in positions to succeed socially. Read on to learn some of the keys to improving the social skills of your kid and giving her the best opportunities to meet new friends.

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By Keren Perles

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. Learn how to help your child start a progression from a wishful wallflower to a social butterfly.

Don’t Add Pressure

This is a common problem for young children, so tread lightly. “During childhood, kids are still learning how to manage their feelings, work together with others … skills that they need to learn in order to succeed in adult relationships,” says Dr. Jennifer Cassatly, a Los Angeles-based psychologist who specializes in child and family therapy. You want to help, but don’t make a big deal about it. Be sure not to bombard your kid with questions about her social circle, and allow her to have some healthy alone time.

Identify the Missing Skills

Not all children struggle to make friends for the same reason. Shyness is an obvious hurdle, but your child may also have trouble sharing, working as a team, cooperating or “playing fair” without bossing other kids around. Perhaps she’s extremely sensitive or distrustful, causing her to feel hurt or angry easily. Getting at the root of your child’s struggles will help guide your next steps.

Teach the Basics

Practice simple phrases that initiate conversations, such as “What’s your name?” or “What’s your favorite subject?” Teach your child how to join a group of kids on the playground, and tell her to allow other kids to join in.

Tell Stories

Many kids find it easier to discuss real-life issues through fictional stories. 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. Cassatly suggests using characters from stories or television shows that your kid is already familiar with.

Meet Other Parents

Being social with parents of your child’s classmates kills not two, but three birds with one stone. One, it can help you set up playdates and after-school activities. Two, you’ll be able to gauge what is typical in social skills in your child’s age-group. And three, you’ll model social skills that your kid will notice and mimic.

Get Your Child Involved

Bringing your child home after school every day isn’t a recipe for social success. Activities such as gymnastics, art, theater or a team sport keeps kids exposed to social situations outside of school. You might also want to take part in local community or religious events.

Think Locally

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,” Cassatly says. 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.

Let Your Kid Be Herself

All kids are different. 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?’” Cassatly says. “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.

Take a Step Back

Walk the tightrope between helping your child and letting her work it out on her own. At times, ask her whether you could help by setting up a playdate, talking to a teacher or role-playing—but at times, let the child work out social issues herself. Always give your child empathy, but provide the space for her to reflect on her experience.

Look Out for Real 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. If you have strong concerns or if the struggles worsen over time, consider speaking to a professional.

Especially at a young age, this is a normal problem that parents and other adults can help children cope with. Do your best, and just remember that your child is likely learning how to interact with other people at a pace that is not unusual for her age.

For more help and information about the social lives of children, check out our articles on social and emotional development.

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