Helping Young Children Build Friendships

group_of_young_kids.pngElizabeth Hartman is the mom of two young boys and has a background in non-profit management. She lives in upstate New York and when she’s not busy with her family, she serves as an educational advocate, holds leadership roles in two local non-profit boards, and volunteers at a local community center.

If you have ever worried about your young child making friends, you are not alone!  While some children are social butterflies who make friends effortlessly, many others are slower to make friendships with peers.  Fortunately for us parents, our children have many years to hone their developing social skills and have us as their allies and guides in navigating the waters of new relationships!

As a mom of a preschooler and kindergartener, I have found the following things to be invaluable in supporting new friendships for my sons:

  1. Find the right match: Some children don’t mesh well, and that’s okay!  Think about your own life and friendships. You may notice that you gravitate towards outgoing people, quiet people, silly people or serious types.  The same is true of our children. A quieter child might enjoy spending time with another who loves directing activities or that same gentle soul might find a more outgoing child to be overwhelming.  By talking to your child, observing her with other children, and speaking with her classroom teacher, you can gather ideas for potential new friends.

  1. Set a date: Once you have a new friend in mind, contact the other parent to set up a playdate.  Planning can be a challenge but meeting up at a school playground at pickup time, or getting the kids together for lunch on a weekend day or dinner on a school night are all options that can fit into busy schedules.

  1. Plan for success: Talk to your child ahead of time about the playdate.  What can the kids do together? If you have a list of ideas that your child has pre-approved, it can be easier to make a helpful suggestion in the moment.  If you are hosting at your home, put away any toys that your child isn’t comfortable sharing and set out some easy favorites that are age appropriate. Thomas trains, arts and crafts, sensory play like play doh or slime, and dress up are big favorites for sharing with friends at my house! No need to plan elaborate projects – just let the kids play.

  2. Update your routine: Make talking about friends a regular part of your child’s day.  Questions like, what did you do at recess today? Who did you sit with at snack/lunch? Did anything funny happen at school today?in addition to asking about specific children you’ve already heard about can be helpful conversation starters. For preschoolers who are less generous with words, the classroom teacher or assistant can be a huge help in sharing hints about what to ask your child and who your child has been spending time with.  Try to keep conversations with your child short, pleasant and low-key. Show enthusiasm when they talk about their day (but don’t overdo it!) and remember details they share so you can ask more specific questions next time.

  3. Role play & reflect with your child: If you notice your child struggling with something at a playdate or you hear about a challenge at school, wait to bring it up until you can find a quiet moment at home or in the car.  Ask neutral and open ended questions like “I noticed/heard about x, can you tell me more about that? How did you feel when that happened? How do you think your friend felt? What do you think you’ll do if that happens again?  You can even role play with your child if it’s comfortable for her! Let her choose whether to take the role of her friend or herself.

  4. Trust your child:  If your child says he or she would like to invite a particular friend over, follow up!  If your child tells you he or she likes a particular child at school, make it a point to call that child’s parent to make a date for the children to get together.  Even 3 and 4 year olds know who they like and who they don’t. Support their choices!

  5. Model friendships: Let your child see you interacting with your friends.  Have people over to the house and model what being a good host looks like.  Enjoying being with friends is a value that can be demonstrated to your children in your own ways of socializing and treating friends.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that there’s no rush or pressure to build these skills.  Each child will learn at a different pace and have a different level of interest in making new friends.  Just position yourself as the relaxed and supportive guide and let your child drive the process!

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