How to Help When Your Kid Struggles to Make Friends

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In the early years, parents often engineer friendships for kids simply by spending time with their friends who also have kids around the same age. This can actually be a great first step toward learning how to make friends. Through these group play experiences, young children learn how to play with other kids, how to handle early conflict (ex: arguing over what to play), and how to keep the play going.

As kids get older, though, they are suddenly tasked with making their own friends in new environments. Some kids love the feeling of group play and seem to make five friends in five minutes. Others need time to warm up. Some kids might feel anxious in these situations and freeze up. And some might even prefer to play alone.

It’s the parents of the kids who seem to experience social anxiety or those who prefer to play alone (and are often labeled “shy”) who reach out for help. How can parents help their kids make friends?

The truth is that parents can’t make friends for their kids. Even those big family gatherings can backfire. Throw your introverted kid into one of those parties and it’s a recipe for a meltdown.

The art of making and keeping friends is a slow process. Even those social butterflies that seem to make friends everywhere they go will hit stumbling blocks at some point. It’s part of learning to navigate the social world. While this isn’t a “problem” to be fixed by you, you can take steps to help your child learn to make lasting friendships.

Build social skills

This might sound like a simple solution, but I find that a lot of kids struggle with things like conversation starters, slipping in and out of groups, greetings, and navigating group play.

A great way to work on these things at home is to use social stories. I encourage kids and parents to work together to draw cartoons of different social scenarios. If your child has trouble joining a group, for example, you might create a social story that begins with the child looking for a group to join, approaching the group, waiting for a break in conversation, using a conversation starter (ex: what are you guys playing?), and joining the group. These stories help your child practice things that might cause her to freeze up when she encounters them.

{ MORE: How Parenthood Changes Your Friendships }

It’s always a good idea to practice greetings. (How do you greet a friend? How to you greet an adult? Or, how do you greet Grandma?) You can use role-play or just take turns practicing (add some silly greetings to make it fun) while sitting around the table.

Keep play dates small

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I know that large group gatherings are fun for adults, and they might even be fun for some kids, but they tend to be overwhelming and overstimulating. That’s not a good combination for kids that struggle to connect with others.

Encourage regular small (1:1) play dates with a friend from school or the neighborhood. If your child struggles to connect, host the play dates at your house first to increase the comfort level.

{ MORE: What to Do When Your Child Struggles to Make Friends }

Help your child practice being a good friend by thinking ahead:

  • What kind of games or toys would your friend like?
  • What kind of snacks might your friend enjoy?
  • How will your child know if the play date is going well? What facial cues can she watch for?
  • What should she do if her friend doesn’t seem to be having fun? Try a new game? Ask her what she likes to play? Get an adult?

Try a book!

Books are a great way to think about how to make and keep friends. Instead of simply reading through your favorite books, take the time to point out facial cues in the illustrations. Talk about how each character feels.

{ MORE: Summer Learning: How You Can Boost Your Kid's Brain Power This Summer }

If you’re still looking for more, grab a copy of Growing Friendships: A Kid’s Guide to Making and Keeping Friends. Using hundreds of playful cartoons to tackle tough friendship topics, this primer for kids ages 6 and up helps guide kids through the art of making friends. It’s a fun and easy-to-use toolkit that puts kids in charge of making their own friends.

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How to Help When Your Kid Struggles to Make Friends

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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