Isn’t it heartbreaking when a child comes home from school and utters the words “no-one wants to play with me”?
“I don’t have anyone to play with.”, “No one wanted to play with me.”… Have you ever heard your child say that on the day she came back from school? Is your child having trouble developing friendships? Does she have a very bad personality that other kids can’t put up with? If your child doesn’t get invited places or have anyone to hang out with, it can be hard not to wonder – and worry.
Making and keeping friends is a skill. If kids struggle with it, it might not have anything to do with personality. It doesn’t mean your child isn’t likable or funny. It may just mean your child needs a hand building social skills. And just like kids need to practice their skills to improve in a specific sport, social skills need to be practiced regularly as well.
In this article, we offer some useful tips on how to coach your child about communication skills that will help them make and keep friends.
Making friends is a skill
Friendship is a big part of life. “Your child needs buddies as much as she needs food and exercise,” says Fred Frankel, Ph.D., director of the UCLA Parent Training & Children’s Friendship Program and author of Friends Forever. One review of research found that children who find it challenging to make and keep friends are more likely to drop out of school and have mental issues like aggression and depression as teenagers. Those who can effectively navigate social situations have less anxiety and greater self-confidence, notes Kristen Eastman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Center for Pediatric Behavioral Health at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital.
Having said that, making friends doesn’t come naturally to everyone. The ability to make and keep friends is a skill that has to be learned. It’s trickier than it seems. It involves things like:
- Starting a conversation and keeping it going
- Responding to social cues
- Interacting in a positive way
- Listening and understanding what others are saying
For many kids, making friends comes easily because they have these social skills. Or they build them quickly as they get older. But some kids take longer, especially kids who learn and think differently.
For example, some kids get too nervous or anxious to talk to other kids. If they do join a conversation, they might have trouble coming up with things to talk about. If a conversation never starts, then a friendship is hard to come by. Or they may start talking about something the other kids aren’t interested in, and not notice that the other kids are tuning out. It’s hard to bond, too, if you don’t understand social rules. For example, there are natural pauses in conversations that help us take turns talking. Some kids barrel through these or interrupt. Even if it’s not on purpose, the result is the same: Other kids can’t get a word in.
Keep in mind that even if kids have the skills to make friends, it’s possible they haven’t met the right people yet. Friendship is often based on common interests. If your child is different in some way, or gets singled out, that can make other kids shy away.
While most kids start forging friendships on their own when they start school, even the most outgoing children will face social challenges at some point. Preschoolers are still developing the ability to share things and play nicely with others, which often leads to conflicts, and early grade-schoolers can be selfish, bossy, and exclusionary.
Parents can help your child get better at making friends
You may have a socially adept child who has intuitively picked up great social skills by watching you or their peers. But there are many kids who need some extra parental support in this area. Of course, you simply can’t make friends for him. You can, however, give him the tools he needs to be social and to be a good friend.
1. Take time to observe and understand how your child socializes
Attend a few activities at school (or sports after school) and pay close attention to how your child interacts with others. Does she behave differently than her “norm” at home? If so, why? Your child may have a tough time starting conversations. She may have anxiety in large groups or a fear of public speaking that keeps her from meaningfully engaging with other children. Does she prefer to keep to herself and observe instead of joining in?
Depending on what behavior you see, you can then decide where to focus your attention, what skills need building, and how you can contribute. “Trust your instincts, because you know your kid best,” says pediatric behavioral health specialist Kristen Eastman, PsyD.
2. Read (and talk) about friendship
“Children learn so much through the narrative of a great story. Look for books that feature friendships, compassion, and sharing,” says Lee Scott, a member of the Educational Advisory Board for The Goddard School and an education consultant in Okatie, South Carolina. “Talking about the characters, their feelings, and the story’s outcomes will help your children learn how to be a friend. A few of our favorites are A mountain of friends by Kerstin Schoene, Elephant & Piggie – a book collection of meaningful stories about friendship by the famous author Mo Willems, and Wonder by R. J. Palacio – reviewed as “a glorious exploration of the nature of friendship, tenacity, fear, and most importantly, kindness” by the Huffington Post.
>>> Check out some books that encourage empathy.
Explore open reading spaces at Everest Education’s libraries
These books are now available at Everest Education’s libraries – where children can get access to English books, e-books, digital audiobooks, movies, magazines, games, and many other traditional and digital resources. Parents can bring your child over to read, check out, and exchange books without losing a penny.
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3. Model positive social behavior
Show your child how to be a good friend and make friends. The best way is to model the behavior you would like to see. There are several ways you can accomplish this at home:
- Help your child realize his own strengths.
- Have a sense of humor about yourself and your shortcomings.
- Listen to your child without criticism.
- Be kind, give compliments, wave to a friend, open the door for someone.
- Be understanding of what others are going through by showing empathy.
- Don’t complain. Instead, teach your children to accept what can’t be changed by working hard to change the things that can.
Children really do learn by example, so be mindful of how you interact with others. Every time you strike up conversations with friends or neighbors, or even the check-out person at the grocery store, your child is aware. Almost every scenario becomes a learning opportunity, allowing your child to see how you join in, negotiate, and problem-solve.
4. Teach kids how to start a conversation
Most children love to talk about themselves, and asking good questions is often the entry point for building friendships. Brainstorm with your child what types of questions they might ask to get to know another person. For example: Do you play any sports? What do you like to do after school? What’s your favorite recess game? What’s in your lunch? How many brothers and sisters do you have? Who’s your teacher?
To make it easier, parents can have kids practice at the dinner table by playing the role of potential friend and have your child initiate some questions, taking turns being the one asking questions and the one answering. And last but not least, have your child practice on someone at school and report back to you how it goes. Remind them to use questioning when opportunities come up for talking with other kids.
Of course, going along with asking questions is listening to the answer and asking follow-up questions. Kids who master question-asking, listening, and follow-up are well-liked because they give people the opportunity to share about themselves.
5. Encourage them to be extend the invitations
For a friendship to begin, someone has to take action. This can be one person inviting another to do something or it can be joining in with what a child or group is already doing. Explain this concept and brainstorm simple, low-risk invitations: Do you want to play basketball or something else (during recess)? Can I sit next to you? Do you want to play catch? Would you like to come over after school?
Another way to connect is for the child to ask to join a game. It’s important for the child to recognize that it’s not always appropriate to ask to join, because it won’t be well-received if it disrupts the flow of play. Sometimes, in the middle of a game, it’s difficult to include a new player. So, rather than asking to join right then, the child can assess what others are doing and say, “Hey, can I play the next game?” rather than intruding at the midway point.
6. Foster empathy and sympathetic concern for others
Empathy is a social skill that is difficult to teach and, in fact, difficult to define. Generally, empathy is our ability to sense others’ emotions and imagine what they may be thinking or feeling. Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., calls empathic responses “standard-issue, grown-up social skills,” yet even adults have trouble with them. If adults struggle with empathy, how much more difficult must it be for children! But self-awareness, self-regulation, and the ability to take another’s perspective are all skills children must come to know.
Children learn to empathize, care, and consider other perspectives by participating in activities that help others. Have young ones start by helping you with simple tasks, such as creating a get-well card for a sick friend, collecting unused toys for children’s hospitals, or making cookies for a neighbor… will teach them the meaning of fostering empathy, perspective-taking, and sympathy in kids.
Besides feeling concern for others, being able to comprehend the circumstances of others can enhance helping or sharing behaviors that are sensitive toward the condition of others. For example, as a study demonstrated, older children shared more stickers with a peer who looked sad and had fewer toys even by giving up their own. This is different from simply sharing equal numbers of stickers with peers regardless of each one’s personal circumstance.
7. Offer a variety of opportunities for kids to play and socialize
Host friends over for playdates or lunch. Find and sign-up your child for group activities such as art, drama or dance. Joining afterschool activities is also a good way for tweens to meet kids with common interests. Once your child feels confident with kids in that group, she may want to hang out one-on-one.
Additionally, you can include your child when talking to people out of her normal range of peers.
Take her to visit a neighbor, or bring her along to the local libraries at the weekend. If your child loves comics, maybe there’s a bookstore or library with a reading group. The more she is exposed to interacting with all kinds of people, the more she will learn to do the same.
>>> If your family are living in Ho Chi Minh city, here are some of our favorite kid-friendly libraries that offer great books and learning resources: https://blog.e2.com.vn/explore-top-4-libraries-for-families-in-ho-chi-minh-city/
Your child’s friendships are bound to have ups and downs, but the right approach can help her smooth the bumps. Learning to build friendships is one of the ways children develop into well-rounded, emotionally healthy human beings. By giving your child the skills she needs to be confident and compassionate, you increase the likelihood that friends will eagerly come into her life. And friends will give her life a richness and happiness she will always treasure.
Should you have any concerns or any topics you want us to cover, feel free to leave your comments below. You can subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest updates delivered straight to your inbox, and find more parenting coverage at https://blog.e2.com.vn/e2-talk-tips-and-tricks-parents/