For many kids, building friendships comes as naturally as breathing in air or waking up in the morning. For others, the process is filled with landmines of fear, anxiety, and discouragement. Experts agree that friendship-building is a skill - it can be learned.
The ‘popular’ kids
Children who are successful in making friends have strong pro-social skills. They show caring for others, often wanting to share something with others or help others in some way. They have strong verbal skills, so they can carry on conversations. They’re able to curb their own selfish or aggressive behaviors and are good at understanding the feelings of others and seeing others’ perspectives. They’re able to make good choices to help avoid arguments and/or problems.
In general, children will reject those they perceive to be aggressive, disruptive, irritable, bossy, or selfish. The negative character traits raise a red flag: there could be trouble ahead for those who spend time with that person. But they gravitate toward those with positive social skills, knowing they’ll be appreciated, be safe, and have fun with that person.
What can you do?
How can you help your child improve their friendship-making skills? What can you do at home to model healthy interpersonal relationships? How can you support your child without intruding and undermining their confidence?
If your child struggles with making new friends, there are simple ways to help sidestep relationship landmines. Here are four ways you can empower your child to navigate the often-murky waters of friendship-building:
1. Develop positive social skills. Help your child develop the necessary positive social skills such as empathy, cooperation, problem-solving, and clear communication. Begin to model and discuss ways to be a friend. Help your child notice when others need help and offer to give it. Practice talking through a problem to find ways to cooperate. Notice when someone is hurting and say kind words to them. Model a kind act or give a compliment. Often, just one kind word or action makes all the difference in building a friendship. Practice will help your child react appropriately in real-life settings.
2. Role-play. One of the most powerful methods of changing behavior in children is found in role-play. When children are involved in acting out ways to cooperate or what to do when a problem arises, the results are amazing. Role-playing can be done by physically acting out a scenario or through the use of puppets or dolls. Either way, your child is empowered to be part of the solution. Try it, you’ll be pleased with the results.
3. Offer play opportunities. Children need many opportunities to practice their friendship-making skills. They need repetition to master cooperation or negotiating a solution to a problem as it arises in their play situations. Invite another child to have lunch at your home or plan simple playdates in your community. Be sure to allow lots of unstructured playtime in which children can pretend play. Be nearby to guide and redirect when help is needed.
4. Stay balanced. A good sense of humor is a wonderful character trait for both adults and children. Life isn’t perfect, and friendships may bear a few battle scars. Children need to learn that conflict is a part of life. Thus, learning to resolve conflict is a real opportunity for personal growth. Making and keeping friends is a lifelong pursuit - it won’t be mastered in one day. Build on your child’s strengths. Compliment your child when they do well and listen to your child when they want to talk to you about their friendship ups and downs.
You can’t make friends for your child, but you can model, train, and redirect behavior in ways that support the skills they need to build healthy, happy relationships.
Jan Pierce, M.Ed., is a retired teacher and freelance writer. She is the author of Homegrown Readers: Simple Ways to Help Your Child Learn to Read. Find her at janpierce.net.
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