Every parent knows schoolyard friendships are important. Friends enrich our lives, boost our self-esteem, and provide the moral support we need when we’re memorizing multiplication tables. Developmentally speaking, making a friend in school is every bit as important as getting an A. Learning how to form successful peer relationships is a critical skill for kids, and one that they will be using—and refining—all their lives.
But some kids have a harder time fitting in. Cornerstones of childhood interaction, like sharing a toy or engaging in make-believe, might elude them. While parents can’t make friends for their children, they can help them develop and practice key social skills. If you see your child struggling to make friends or getting rejected by other kids, here are some steps you can take to help.
Related: What Is Social Anxiety?
Building social skills
Social skills don’t come naturally to all kids. Impulsive and hyperactive children often act in ways that stymie their strong desire for friendship, notes Mary Rooney, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in ADHD and disruptive behavior disorders. They often have trouble taking turns and controlling their anger when they don’t get their way. More inattentive kids may act flighty or hover at the margins of playgroups, unsure of how to assert themselves.
If you notice that your child is struggling to interact with his peers, try some coaching at home. Emphasize taking turns and sharing during family playtime and explain that friends expect the same good behavior. Impulsive children will also benefit from practicing different strategies for settling peer conflict. Role playing can be very helpful here. Of course, as a parent you should also be careful to demonstrate good social behavior yourself when talking to family members and your own friends.
For kids who need more intensive guidance, experts suggest using “social scripts,” or simple everyday conversations that kids can practice with their parents. You can work with your child’s doctor or behavioral therapist to select appropriate scripts and develop a strategy for rehearsing and implementing them. Social scripts are especially helpful for children on the autism spectrum who need to deliberately learn key social skills, such as establishing eye contact and responding to the moods of others.
Finally, if your child has been having a hard time making friends, Dr. Rooney suggests setting up a meeting with his teacher. “Often kids will say ‘everyone hates me,’ but they may not be able to describe what’s going on.” Teachers can give a better sense of your child’s peer interactions and suggest more positive classmates for after-school playdates.
Practice during playdates
Supervised playdates are a great way for children to build their social muscles. Dr. Rooney suggests that parents spend some time before playdates reviewing social cues with their children. Some activities for playdate-prep include:
- Talk with your child about what it means to be a good host. What will your child do to make her guests feel comfortable?
- Have your child pick out a few games in advance. How will your child know when it’s time to move on to the next game?
- Ask your child how she will know if her guests are having a good time. Are they smiling? Laughing?
As long as the children don’t veer into play that’s outright dangerous, let the playdate unfold as it may, recommends Jamie Howard, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. Children learn from the natural consequences of their actions, which is why it’s so important to let them practice socializing in a warm, supportive setting.
And when you review how it went, focus on the good behaviors you want to reinforce. “Kids are more motivated by praise than by avoiding criticism,” says Dr. Howard. “Specific, labeled praise is most helpful. Instead of ‘good job,’ say, ‘you shared very well with your friend.'”
Helping shy kids
Some kids are natural social butterflies while others need more time to warm up to new situations. Don’t worry if your child is a little more hesitant in social situations. Expecting every child to jump in and be the leader of the group isn’t realistic, so avoid pushing too hard. However, parents shouldn’t make the mistake of keeping more tentative kids at home, either. Rachel Busman, PsyD, a psychologist who works with anxious kids, explains, “There’s a difference between accommodating and enabling. For shyer kids we want to give them opportunities to meet new kids, but we want to help bridge the transition so they aren’t too uncomfortable.”
Related: Tips for Managing Social Anxiety
Dr. Busman suggests planning playdates at your house first, where your child will be most at ease. Clubs or other activities are also a good way to make friends because they provide built-in structure that helps minimize anxiety. If your child is reluctant, try finding a familiar peer to join the activity with her. As with any social skill, parents can help shy kids rehearse ahead of time for a situation that makes them nervous, like going to a birthday party or meeting a new group of people.
Every child is different
Dr. Busman notes there is also a difference between children who are shy and children who are simply more introverted and prefer spending their down time reading or drawing by themselves. “Different children in the same family can have different social limits and degrees of comfort. A child who prefers quiet time or being in small groups isn’t necessarily avoiding other kids.” But it’s essential that more introverted children still get opportunities to make friends. Dr. Busman recommends knowing how much your child can handle and setting expectations accordingly. It’s enough for some kids to find just one thing they like to do once a week.
Finally, it’s important that parents not place too many of their own social expectations on children. Dr. Rooney advises keeping things in perspective. “Kids need just one or two good friends. You don’t have to worry about them being the most popular kid in their class.”