For some kids, making friends seems to come easily, while others need a little extra help. But like all social skills, making friends is a skill that must be taught.
“If your child struggles in social situations, avoid labeling her as shy or an introvert,” said Geoffrey Putt, a child psychologist and director of family support services at Akron Children’s Hospital. “Instead, recognize that it’s perfectly normal to feel shy or uncomfortable in new situations and that we all feel that way from time to time. Don’t let it be an excuse to avoid social interactions.”
One way parents can help facilitate friendships is to organize planned activities with other kids. Having a common activity to do, whether it’s playing a game or making a craft project, can be less threatening because it’s structured and everyone plays a role.
It can also provide opportunities for conversation, so kids get to know one another better.
You can also help your child make friends by encouraging him to:
- Find other kids that share his interests. This will give them something to do together, as well as something to talk about. Clubs and activities outside of school will widen the potential pool of friends and help him meet others with similar interests.
- Practice social scripts. Our everyday interactions follow a social script – from common greetings and compliments to conversation starters or small talk about the weather. Help your child practice things she can say when meeting new people. Remind her that good manners and being polite are important too.
- Avoid talking only about himself. By asking the other person questions about himself, your child will show he’s interested. This can also lead to new information that will help further the relationship, such as finding out they both love Legos® or baseball.
- Be aware of non-verbal signals. People are drawn to those who smile frequently, make eye contact and stand or sit in a way that invites others to talk to them. Use examples from movies or TV to discuss body language with your child. This will help her understand how to read non-verbal signals and make sure she’s sending the right messages.
- Be open to new friends. It’s OK to hang out with a particular group of kids, as long as your child doesn’t exclude other potential playmates, including those who may be different from him. Your child may find there are more similarities than differences. Having a diverse group of friends can also be very enriching.
- Volunteer for a good cause. Working together for the greater good can create a special bond that may lead to lasting friendships.
- Be positive. It’s easy to gossip or talk about others. Help your child understand that although it may feel like we’re building relationships when we share gossip, it’s more harmful in the long run.
- Be a good sport. Taking the ball and going home when things don’t go your way hampers friendships. Teach your child that good sportsmanship is important.
Parents can also play a role by demonstrating the qualities that we value in friendships, such as kindness, honesty and humility.
“Setting a good example of what it means to be a friend will go a long way,” said Dr. Putt. “Make time for your own friends. If you say you will do something, keep your word. Show your kids why that’s important.”