Your child’s school days are about so much more than just classwork: School is also where kids learn vital lessons on how to interact with people.
That’s especially true when it comes to forming friendships with other children.
“Developmentally speaking, making a friend in school is every bit as important as getting an A,” says the Child Mind Institute (CMI) in New York City. “Learning how to form successful peer relationships is a critical skill for kids.”
That’s why it is important to address the issue head-on.
“Don’t avoid the problem,” advises the Cleveland Clinic. “Your child won’t learn to improve their relationships by always sitting at home with you.”
Helping Your Child Feel Socially Secure
Having a warm relationship with your child and using positive discipline—for instance, explaining why it’s a rule that homework comes before playtime instead of dismissing the question with “because I said so”—helps children become more socially adept.
Children exposed to positive parenting “are more likely to treat others with kindness and sympathy,” says Gwen Dewar, PhD, a mother herself who blogs at Parenting Science. “They tend to be less aggressive, more self-reliant and better-liked by peers.”
Taking a positive approach to parenting can help you and your little one work through relationship problems together. Here are some specific approaches you can try:
- Be empathetic and show interest. “Sit close, turn off the TV and put aside the phone,” suggests clinical psychologist Craig Springer, PhD, of the Good Life Center for Mental Health in Cranford, New Jersey. If your child finds it difficult to express feelings, make an educated guess at what’s wrong: “You told me that your friends didn't include you. I wonder if you are feeling upset, frustrated or angry?" Rephrase and repeat what was said to make sure you understood it correctly, then express your concern: "I am also feeling sad that you felt excluded by your friends."
- Acknowledge your child’s truth. Every story has two sides. However, “it's important to find truth in what your child is saying, since it is their truth,” says Springer. “Instead of saying ‘I'm sure they didn't mean to’ or ‘everything's okay,’ find a way to validate your child's experience.” Motherly.com recommends asking, “I hear you say that a lot. What do you mean by that?" Statements such as “I’m a loser” or “I always get into trouble” represent “an underlying story they are telling themselves,” Motherly explains.
- Share similar experiences that you’ve had. It may help your child to know that you also struggled making friends at times but that you were able to get past your difficulties. Motherly suggests adding, “I think it might be good to work on your friendship skills. What do you think?"
- Encourage them to find solutions themselves.“Allow your child to consider their role as a friend,” says Motherly. “Allow them to contemplate and problem-solve."
Teaching Your Child Social Skills
Some children make friends easily. But even if your child doesn’t, there are ways he or she can learn to become more comfortable in forming relationships.
You can help by:
- Modeling your own social skills.“Every time you strike up conversations with friends or neighbors, or even the checkout person at the grocery store, your child is aware,” says the Cleveland Clinic. “Almost every scenario becomes a learning opportunity, allowing your child to see how you join in.”
- Understanding how your child socializes. The Cleveland Clinic suggests attending school-related activities or youth-league games and “paying close attention to how your child interacts with others. Do they behave differently than their norm at home? If so, why?” Observe if your child has a hard time starting conversations, seems anxious or uncomfortable, says inappropriate things or simply keeps to himself or herself.
- Reach out to other adults. Your child’s teachers are the first people you should contact: “Teachers can give a better sense of your child’s peer interactions and suggest more positive classmates for after-school playdates,” notes the CMI. Relatives or other parents may also provide useful information.
- Reinforce and praise. “Even when your child is only making slow progress, make sure to reinforce their efforts,” advises the Cleveland Clinic. “Tell your child how proud you are that they keep trying.”
Here are some specific ways to help your child learn the skills that make for better relationships.
Help Your Child Deal with Anxious Feelings
Feeling anxious can disrupt a child’s ability to make friends.
“Even if your child hasn't shown signs of anxiety previously, they may be doing so now, and that is perfectly normal,” says Springer.
He recommends teaching your child to calm those butterflies in the stomach with a simple breathing technique: Breathe in slowly through the nose, hold for a slow count of five and then breath slowly out through the mouth. (You can find more breathing exerciseshere.)
However, “the most important step to helping your child get over their fear of social situations is to provide them with opportunities to have positive social interactions,” Springer says. “Positive outcomes will ultimately dispel fears.”
Sometimes, anxious feelings rise to the level of outright anxiety disorder. You can learn more about anxietyhere, including ways to help an overly anxious child.
Teach Your Child How to Converse
Every relationship starts with a conversation, making the ability to talk easily with others a key to making friends.
The foundation for such skills is built at home: “We can help by engaging our kids in pleasant, reciprocal conversations,” Dewar says.
This process may be easier for your child if it’s broken down into easy-to-remember steps. Springer suggests teaching your child to:
- Look at the other person
- Walk up to them
- Make eye contact
- Wait for them to look at you
- Say, "Hello, my name is..."
- Ask for their name
- Wait for them to speak
- Say, "It's nice to meet you"
“Each step can then be taught and practiced—be sure to offer plenty of praise and positive feedback for accomplishing each step,” Springer says.
Dewar adds that you also should help your child learn how not to be “a conversation hog. Only answer the question at hand and when you’re done, give your partner the chance to talk.”
Use Role Playing to Practice Social Skills
Home can be a safe space in which your child can practice how to form friendships in the wider world.
“Children gravitate toward things they find fun and enjoyable,” notes Springer. “Try to get your child excited about interacting with peers by talking with them about how to include other children in activities or hobbies they already enjoy.
Any game your child already likes can be used to teach and reinforce social skills,” Springer adds. “For instance, if your child enjoys board games, use your time playing games together to practice social skills like turn-taking, sharing, cooperation and following instructions.”
For kids who could use more structured guidance, “experts suggest using ‘social scripts,’ or simple everyday conversations that kids can practice with their parents,” says the CMI.
Set Up Supervised Playdates
In today’s world, children have very little free-play time outside of recess periods at school. That makes playdates crucial in helping kids build social skills.
Springer suggests keeping the first ones short, between 30 and 60 minutes, and increasing the length as your child becomes more comfortable.
“Start with one child initially, and increase the number of children based on your child's comfort, interest and skill,” Springer adds. “Make it structured. When you do reach out to another child, be sure to mention the time limit and the specific activities.”
“Host social activities that encourage cooperation, not competition,” recommends Dewar. “Studies suggest that kids get along better when they are engaged in cooperative activities—those in which kids work toward a common goal.”
The CMI says you should gently remind your child to respond appropriately to their playmate’s behavior: “How will your child know when it’s time to move on to the next game? Ask your child how they’ll know if guests are having a good time: Are they smiling? Laughing?”
“As your child's social skills progress, allow for increasingly less structure and more autonomy,” Springer adds.
Help Your Child Learn How to Forgive, Compromise…and Say “I’m Sorry”
No relationship is totally free of misunderstandings. That’s why learning to work through them—instead of letting conflicts fester and result in rifts—is an important friendship skill.
If your child tends to brood over what he or she believes to be deliberate mistreatment, Dewar suggests asking your child about alternative reasons: Was it an accident? Was the other person stressed, ill or simply in a bad mood?
“When adults ask kids to think about such alternative explanations, kids are more likely to give perpetrators the benefit of the doubt,” says Dewar.
The other side of the coin?
“Teach your child how to express remorse and make amends,” says Dewar. “It happens to everyone. We mess up.”
She adds that as opposed to feeling shame, which can lead to a child becoming resentful and angry, a healthy sense of guilt can lead to reflection “on how our actions have affected others. And it inspires us to try to repair the damage we’ve caused. The difference is crucial for making and keeping friends.”
Growing up with siblings can foster learning the art of give-and-take. But even if yours is an only child, “studies suggest that kids can hone their skills through role-playing exercises and activities that ask them to come up with solutions to hypothetical social clashes,” says Dewar.
Stay Informed About Your Child’s Relationships
Part of the parenting art is learning how to monitor your child’s social life without interfering or controlling those relationships…especially as he or she moves into adolescence.
“Talk to your children’s friends when they come to visit, and ask your kids to tell you about things they’ve done in their free time,” recommends Dewar. “It’s important to give your child a sense of autonomy and communicate your concerns in a way that seems reasonable and respectful.”
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**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.