Helping Your Kids Make and Keep Friends
by James J. Crist, Ph.D.
Author of The Survival Guide for Making and Being Friends
Having effective social skills is extremely important for your child’s success, both at school and in life. It is easier to go to school if you can look forward to seeing your friends, talking to them at lunch, and playing with them at recess. Kids who can make and keep friends are more likely to do better in school, be less depressed, and are more resilient when problems in life occur.
These skills are also essential for adults in terms of being successful as a parent and as a spouse, as well as on the job. Interacting appropriately with co-workers can make the difference between keeping a job and being fired. If your child has trouble making friends, you know from experience how tough this can be for them. Fortunately, there is much you can do to help your child make and keep friends.
Making friends is actually a complex task consisting of many different abilities and skill sets. Problems in any one area can make it harder to connect with others socially. These abilities include being assertive, having good manners, being attentive to what others are saying and doing, giving compliments, being empathetic to others, resolving problems, negotiating and compromising, sharing, taking turns, being thoughtful, being respectful, being in control of your emotions, and showing interest in others. Practicing these at home will make it easier for your child to use them with friends.
Parents are very important in helping their kids make and keep friends. This may start with the choices you make. Remember, kids learn best by watching how their parents interact. Is getting together with friends a priority in your life? Do you include your children in your social activities? Also, how do you handle conflict within your family? If there is a lot of yelling or name-calling, you can’t expect that your child will not resort to this behavior with his friends too. When parents model positive ways of interacting with others, compliment and praise often, share, and work out problems constructively, their kids are more likely to learn these skills too and use them to make and keep friends.
In today’s world, kids are less likely to just go outside and interact with other kids on their own. Busy schedules and parental fear keep many kids isolated, which is why they often need help in getting together with friends. If your child doesn’t have friends to invite, and if you have friends with kids of a similar age, consider inviting them over to see if the kids get along with each other.
Be careful about screen time. The more time your child spends on electronics, the less motivated he may be to get together with friends, which takes more effort. Studies show that kids who spend excessive amounts of time (more than two hours a day) using electronics (TV, computers, phones, or handheld gaming devices) are more likely to be overweight, have lower grades, and have emotional problems, including problems paying attention and aggressive behavior, all of which can impair social relationships.
If there are few kids in your neighborhood, you will have to put in some effort to get your child to places where other kids might play. For example, you may need to take them to playgrounds or parks. This is a fun and inexpensive way to encourage your child to socialize.
Be alert to opportunities for your child to invite friends over. For example, you might want to set aside one day during the week or on the weekend in which your child is allowed to invite a friend over. If this becomes the expectation for everyone in your family, this can promote the value of developing and maintaining friendships. If you’re going on a family outing, this would be a good opportunity for your child to invite a friend. This could involve going into a park, seeing a movie, going to a museum, or going out to dinner.
One way to boost your child’s friendships is to encourage involvement in activities. Sports are a great way to make friends, but there are other activities as well, such as school clubs, Scouts, church youth groups, Tai Kwon Do classes, dance, or even volunteering. Some parents insist that their children pick at least one activity. Try to encourage activities that will allow for socializing. If possible, talk to the coach or activity leader ahead of time. Let him or her know if your child has difficulty making friends and see if he or she is receptive. Often, coaches or leaders can encourage friendships by making sure everyone knows each other’s names, making sure they cheer on their teammates, having end-of-season parties, etc.
If you are unsure of whether your child has trouble making friends, pay attention to how your child interacts with others. Does your child use a positive tone of voice? Does your child make eye contact when talking to someone? Can your child start conversations? Is your child able to keep the conversation going? Do other kids seem to like being around your child? Does your child talk about inviting friends over, or talking to them at lunch? Can you child tell you the names of kids they interact with at school? Checking with your child’s teachers can also give you some clues.
In terms of helping your child socially, think of yourself as your child’s coach or consultant. You can’t do all the work for your child, because this will not teach the skills she needs to survive the social world. However, kids do need gentle guidance, a lot of encouragement, praise when they succeed, and understanding when things do not work out the way they hoped.
Be careful not to bombard your child with a bunch of suggestions are as to what she should do to make friends. Start the conversation by asking your child some questions. Examples include:
- How easy is it for you to make friends?
- What do you think makes it hard for you?
- Would you like to make more friends?
- How do you think you might go about making new friends?
- Have you watched how other kids in school make friends? Do you think that might give you some good ideas?
One of the most helpful things parents can do is to role-play social situations with kids. This gives them practice on what to do and how to behave when interacting with other
kids. You can take turns playing the part of your child and a peer. This allows you to demonstrate the skills you’d like your child to practice and use.
You can also help your kids learn how to initiate and plan play dates. Making a phone call to arrange a play date is hard for many kids. You may need to practice this with your child a number of times before he will feel comfortable doing it independently. If needed, write out a script how your child should do this. Here’s an example.
“Hello, this is Rebecca calling. May please speak to Joni? Hi Joni–it’s Rebecca! How are you? I was calling to see if you might be able to come over this weekend. I checked with my parents and they said it was fine.”
Before your child has someone over, make sure you have a place where they can play. Involve your child in cleaning up if needed. Have snacks available and teach your child how to offer them to guests. Brainstorm ideas of what the kids can do together so that when guests arrive, your child can offer suggestions. Also, if there are certain toys your child doesn’t want to share, put them away ahead of time.
Be sure to review rules of behavior before play dates, such as taking turns, being polite, etc. At least at first, it is a good idea to stay close by when your child is playing with a new friend. This allows you to overhear their interactions. Don’t wait until problems occur. You can praise your child, and her friend, when you see good social skills being used. If a problem occurs, don’t jump into quickly. Wait a few seconds and see if the kids can work it out themselves. If things start getting heated, this is the time to intervene. However, don’t be critical in your tone. It’s better for your tone of voice to indicate surprise, as well as support. Here’s an example.
“Hey guys, seems like you are having trouble working things out. What’s going on? (Give each child a chance to explain the problem, and reflect back what you hear from each child.) Okay, so Susie, you want to play this game, but Joni, you want to play a different game. And you’re both having trouble figuring out how to work it out. What are your choices? (Give the children the chance to come up with possible solutions first. If they can’t come up with solutions, offer some suggestions.) Well, one thing you could do would be to take turns. Some kids like to flip a coin to see who gets to play their game first. After that game, then you can play the game the other person wanted to play. How does that sound?”
It may help for you and your child they have a secret signal either of you can use if problems arise. This way, your child can come to you privately if needed and adjust her behavior as needed. For example, if while observing the interaction, your child tugs her ear, or asks what time dinner is, this could be your clue that she needs help. You can also ask your child for help in the other room as a signal that you need to talk privately about his behavior with his friend. Remember that the younger the child, the shorter the play date should be. Kids get tired more easily, and will get cranky if they overdo it. A snack break can also give the kids some down time.
If your child’s friendship problems are not getting better through your guidance, seeking professional help is wise. It is possible that there is an underlying problem, such as a mental health disorder, that is keeping your child from being successful. Some children respond well to individual counseling to work on social skills. Other children do better in social skill group counseling, which allows kids to learn social skills and practice them on other group members.
If you would like more information on improving your child’s social skills, check out the following resources:
- Cohen, Cathi. (2000). Raise Your Child’s Social IQ. Silver Spring, MD: Advantage Books.
- Frankel, Fred. (1996). Good Friends Are Hard To Find. Glendale, CA: Perspective Publishing.
- Frankel, Fred. (2010). Friends Forever. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
- Sheridan, Susan M. (1998). Why Don’t They Like Me? Longmont, CO: Sopris West. This book provides numerous suggestions on how to teach social skills to your child.
Dr. Crist is the Clinical Director of the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge. As a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, he works with a wide variety of clients, including children, adolescents, adults, couples, and families. He specializes in play therapy, working with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders. His most recent book, The Survival Guide for Making and Being Friends, was released this fall. For more information on Dr. Crist, check out his website: www.jamesjcrist.com.