Most child development milestones are monitored closely by parents from a very young age: Can my child walk? Check! Use a cup to drink? Check! Jump on one foot? Recite the ABCs? Check and check! Then there are child development “soft skills”—social and emotional skills that can be harder to judge and even more challenging to teach. Skills like sharing, empathy and respect aren’t instantly obtained, but developed. Perhaps the most basic social-emotional skill children must develop is making friends, especially when they begin attending school.
“Friendships are very important when it comes to emotional health,” explains Julia Cook, a former teacher and school counselor who authored “Making Friends Is an ART!” Continues Cook, “To a child, even having just one good friend can make a huge difference.” While some children make friends with ease, others may need encouragement. “Some people tend to think it just comes naturally, and for some [children] it does, but for many, it doesn’t,” observes Stacey Brown, a counselor from Fort Myers, Florida.
If your child is shy or has struggled with making friends in the past, there are many things you can do to help. Here are some ways you can help your child make lasting friendships without putting too much pressure on them:
Talk About It
Talk about or brainstorm a list of “friend qualities” with your child. Cook suggests using concepts such as: being friendly, being honest, laughing and having fun, willingness to share, being kind, and learning how to place others’ needs ahead of their own. Once your child understands what sort of qualities make a good friend, you can then discuss, observe other children or even role play these qualities.
Connecting Through Conversations
Since being able to share thoughts and ideas is so important to any friendship, you can help your child understand how to build and maintain a conversation. “Remind kids to look for connections between what was just said and what they will say next,” shares Barbara Boroson, a mom, Scholastic author, and autism spectrum educator. “I like to encourage kids to think of conversation as being like a Lego tower: in order for a conversation to keep going and growing, the various pieces must connect and fit together tightly. If they don’t, the tower will fall and the conversation will collapse.”
Also remember to acknowledge past success as a way to open the door to discussion of new social skills. “Parents can say, ‘You are such a good talker, but I’ve noticed it seems hard for you to think of things to say when you are with your friends. Do you feel that way?’ Focusing on previous successes, no matter how small, helps build confidence,” explains Brown. Cook agrees: “Give constructive feedback—always start by telling your child what he or she is doing right. Remember to teach, not criticize.” Acknowledge social success through positive reinforcement, for example, “It was great to see you and Eric share how you’re both learning to write your first name!”
Organize Play Dates or Activities
If a child continues to struggle or feel less than confident in their friend-making skills, be proactive in organizing play dates for kids. “After-school play dates can support socialization in many ways, [by allowing] social practice in an environment that may feel more forgiving than school,” says Boroson. “Socializing can be much easier in one-on-one situations … and the greatest potential benefit is the creation of a shared experience, a bond that the two children can then build on at school.”
Likewise, a shared bond between your child and another child can be formed through choosing enjoyable after-school and extracurricular activities. Choosing activities that your child finds fun will most likely create new friendship opportunities, as there is already a shared interest between the participants.
At the same time, be sure to not have unrealistic expectations of your shy or socially reserved child. “Some children are more outgoing than others. It’s just their personality. Comparing siblings or other children to yours can be dangerous and skew your perspective,” warns Brown.
With just a little gentle parental support and guidance, most children develop the social skills necessary to make friends. Still, “Be available to listen to your child’s tales of woe from school,” maintains Boroson. “Navigating them successfully is the challenging work of childhood. Support your child by debriefing difficult situations together. Then, rather than just giving your child solutions or new strategies, guide him or her to be the problem solver.”
Lastly, Cook advises, “Remember to be patient. Teaching friendship skills will never be as easy as it sounds, and we are all at different levels of learning.”
In the end, children will continue to grow socially as they progress through school. With the support of parental love and coaching, children will better enjoy the journey toward meaningful friendship.
Jessica Efird is a writer and blogger at SweetPeasandPumpkins.com. Before blogging, she worked on Capitol Hill covering education policy. She is a wife and mom to two young boys.