Help Your Child Make Friends

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Repost from 2012
An interview with Dr. Robyn Silverman

For now, my boys love spending time with me. On my “off-days”, when motherhood seems more of a drain than joy, I remind myself how lucky I am that they actually seek my company. Soon, friends will reign supreme, and I’ll be lucky for a few minutes of their time. How can we parents lay down some fundamentals to help our kids begin and sustain friendships with kids that make them feel happy and safe?  Dr. Robyn Silverman, the parenting expert who guided the curriculum for our just released DVD, “Ruby’s Studio: The Friendship Show,” shares some simple guidance to help our kids kick-off friendships right.  — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, TMC

How can parents best teach their young children (3-6) how to meet other children?

Your stance and gaze.  Make sure shoulders are back, head held high, and to look at the other person’s face — not belly button.

Initial greeting.  You want to greet a potential friend with a “Hi!” or “Hello!”

State your name. “I’m Jenny.”

Ask a question.  Here are some simple and logical options, “What’s your name?”, “What are you doing?”, and if the child feels more bold, “Can I play with you?” Keep in mind that asking to play with another child could lead to the other child saying “no.”

Give a compliment. Find something about that person you can compliment. “I like your shoes”, “You run fast!”, or “I like your sand sculpture.”

Find a commonality. “I like to run too!”, “I like to swing on the swings!”, “I like peanut butter and jelly too”, or “I like your red shirt. Red is my favorite color!”

Depending on your child’s age you can craft the greeting and follow-up questions age-appropriately. Having your child practice with you can be a big help.

What if the child approached is not interested in meeting your child?

Children want to feel accepted and valued. If they’re around somebody who doesn’t want their company, or makes them feel yucky, then guide your child towards another friend. Tell your child to look around, and go towards what makes him/her feel safe and happy. Forcing friendships can have the unwanted effect of turning kids into people-pleasers.

What if your child is shy and uncomfortable approaching children? 

First off, don’t label your child as “shy,” as in, “He’s shy.” It’s okay to say “He’s feeling shy.” Feelings are transitory, so naming his or her feeling is okay, in fact it can be validating.

Even if your child tends to feel shy about integrating him/herself into social situations, parents should continue to give their child opportunities to challenge themselves. Starting soccer or dance class or Kindergarten are all great environments for your child to practice reaching out. To assist your child, you can create a playdate at a safe space, a place they love. By controlling the environment, the child can do the work of meeting new kids without feeling overwhelmed. Let’s say your four year-old is starting a martial arts class series. He feels shy and doesn’t want to get on the training floor. The parent should continue to bring the child to class, and see if the s/he warms up. Parents should praise their child for the tiniest of steps — “I saw that you smiled at Sarah!”, or “I heard you say hello to the teacher!” If you’re finding your child is chronically resisting, then reach out to your pediatric doctor. In general though, repetition, environment control, and leveraging help from the teacher (in a class situation) is really helpful. If a parent feels anxious about his/her child bonding, it can in turn, raise the child’s anxiety levels. If the parent can’t regulate his/her emotions around the issue, it might be a good idea for a different parent or caretaker to take the lead for a bit.

A word about when children hide behind parents’ legs. Talk to your child, and offer up options for him/her. You could say something like, “Everyone seems really nice here.”, “Did you see what’s on her shirt?”, “Hey, those kids are playing your favorite game!” Parents should validate their child’s feelings and empathize. “It seems like you feel anxious and that’s totally normal. Let’s look around. I see a girl drawing a fish over there.” Watch your child closely for clues. You might see her nodding. You walk your child over to the child drawing, and you ask the child her name. Then the children might make a connection. When the child seems like she’s made a connection, then the parent can peel away. When your child is feeling uncomfortable in a social environment, you don’t want your child to stay in one spot. Keep up the gentle pressure by exposing her to other play opportunities.

Also, before you go to a park or playdate or party – remind your child of the routine of the day and what they might be doing. Prepping them will help them feel comfortable and more in control. Furthermore, it’s a fresh start every time, so don’t say, “I know you’re gonna feel shy and anxious….” You can recognize their feelings as I mentioned before, but don’t impose feelings on them. Your child could be invisibly evolving. Allow them to do so without interference.

How can we steer our children toward healthy friendships?  Making friends with people who will be good to them?

A great start is to ask your child, “What words come to mind when defining a good friend?”  Your child might say, “Nice, fun, happy.”

When they start making friends, then you can ask them, “is this friend, nice, fun, and happy?” If your child says no, then you have the ability to guide them based on their own definition of a good friend. Use their definition to help them find what they truly want.

Referring to characters in stories or a TV show that were seeking friendships can also help your child identify what’s best for him/her.

Don’t wait for them to be teenagers to tell them to surround themselves with safe and happy people.

Dr. Robyn Silverman is a child development specialist, sought-after speaker and award-winning writer known for her no-nonsense yet positive approach to helping young people and their families thrive. Dr. Silverman has been a repeat featured expert on The Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS Early Show, Nightline, The Tyra Show, NBC’s LXtv, Fox News, NPR, and more.

 The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out episodes of our “Ruby’s Studio” children’s video series,  along with our beautiful children’s booksappsmusichandmade dolls, and more.  

Posted in: Expert Advice, Friendship