One sure-fire way to rip your parental heart out is to find that your kid has no friends at school or is being left out. As parents, we all want to help our kids. The problem is, we can’t navigate the social nuances of the playground or party invitation list. While you can’t do everything, there certainly are some things you can do to help. The approach is a little different depending on the age of your child.
Young children (1-3 years):
When children are very young, you can have the most influence. In these early years, none of the children know how to act or make friends. They are all being taught. This is when you are teaching your child to take turns and share. For example, when I am playing pretend with my 2-year-old, I coach her to give me a bite of her plastic apple or share some of her blocks with me to build a tower together. I want her to learn to share and interactively play when the stakes are low.
Don’t be discouraged if your very young child doesn’t seem to want to interactively play with other 1- and 2-year-olds. Developmentally, it is normal for children of this age to “parallel play” (meaning by each other, but not with each other).
Preschoolers (3-4 year olds):
I think there are HUGE benefits to children going to preschool. Academics aside, there’s a lot of social value in young children modeling behaviors, learning to interact and follow directions, and having instruction from a responsible adult (that is other than the parent). With that said, not all preschools are equally great (so do your homework). These little controlled environments where your child can learn to socially interact are ideal. (Don’t fret too much if a great preschool isn’t in your area or your life/finances don’t allow for it right now. The same principles can be applied to outings at the park, church groups, neighborhood friends, etc.)
- Before the interaction (e.g., the first day of school), role play. Practice with your child saying, “Hi, my name is …. What’s your name?” Teach your child to wait for the answer, then ask a follow up question like, “want to play?”
- If your child is a little shy or overwhelmed by the social situation, start the social situation. At this young age, grown-ups aren’t embarrassing to the child yet (just wait). You approach the other child sweetly and get the ball rolling for your little one. I had to do this with my oldest daughter on the first day of preschool. I encouraged her to go talk to a little girl on the first day, but she cowered at my side. I went up and knelt by the little girl and complimented her on her pink dress. I asked the little girl her name and introduced her to my daughter. I then pointed out some nearby toys and said that they looked fun and asked them if they wanted to play. They jumped on it and I then stepped back.
- Stay interactively involved. If you’ve ever been around a group of preschoolers, you know how quickly things can derail and deteriorate. A game of house turns into a fight over who gets to be the mother, a soccer game turns into a wrestling match, etc. I find that, at this age, staying actively involved in the interaction allows optimal teaching. I will play the board game with the kids or be in the room while kids are playing. It allows you to intervene at the first negative comment. At this young age, children need to be course-corrected early. Don’t wait for them to “work it out.” A simple, “Ellie, that wasn’t a very nice thing to say. How should we do it different?” would be appropriate.
Elementary school age:
This is the age where being actively involved starts getting a little trickier. There are socially acceptable things to help your child and certainly things that aren’t. You can’t very well go into your child’s 5th grade class and introduce her to other girls. She won’t appreciate your efforts not matter how well intentioned they are. Other factors include your neighborhood and school (e.g., does your child attend the neighborhood school? Are there kids your child’s age in the neighborhood?) Here are some general guidelines.
- Help your child physically.
- Make sure your child has good hygiene. It’s hard to socially overcome being the “stinky kid.”
- Don’t allow them to go to school wearing clothes you know will result in them being made fun of. Now a kindergartener may be able to get away with wearing a batman cape to school (because the other kindergarteners are still young and not as socially aware), but a 5th grader will likely be tagged “the weird kid.” It is a rare and exceptional child that can sport such audacious attire and actually trend set or not be a target of mocking (if you have that child, then you already know that he/she doesn’t need social help).
- Know the other kids in your child’s class by volunteering, having the kids over for playdates, asking about them, etc. If you know the kids, it helps you to have context as you inquire about them and social situations.
- Have friends over for playdates.
- Coach kids before on how to be a good host. For example, you might tell your child that it’s polite to let the friend go first or decide between the options of activities. Help your child to know when to transition to another activity or how to tell if his/her friend is having fun (e.g., are they smiling and laughing?)
- Plan ahead. Steer clear of activities that are solo (e.g., iPads) or promote aggressive play (e.g., toy weapons). If your child has a favorite toy that he/she can’t share, hide it before the play date.
- Supervise from a distance. For example, when my elementary age kids have friends over, I may be working in the kitchen while they are playing in the adjacent family room. I am allowing the children to interact (without me getting involved), but overhearing and watching interactions. This allows me to coach and follow up after the playdate. I may give direct feedback to my child that when he/she said or did something in particular it wasn’t very nice or suggest another strategy when the friends encountered a social empass.)
- Insist on appropriate social interactions in controlled settings. This is a non-threatening way to practice social skills. By the time a child is in elementary school, they should be able to do certain small social things on their own. For example, when ordering at a restaurant, have your child call the waiter by name and order for himself. Have your child make the actual phone call to ask ‘Mrs. Smith if Johnny can come over for a playdate.’ When your child needs to use the bathroom in a store, have your child ask the store employee for directions. The good news is that in all these sorts of settings, it is usually an adult that your child is asking (and essentially getting social practice). The vast majority of the time, your child will be well received simply because the interaction is with a person that is more mature. Another perk, it’s a good time to reinforce polite conversational skills (e.g., the simple ‘excuse me,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘please.’)
- Teach kids conversation skills. Studies show that kids who have better conversational skills are better liked (translation: more friends). Key components include:
- Learning to actively listen (little tricks like making eye contact and verbally responding). Every kid wants to be heard. Teaching kids to listen will automatically give them a leg up socially.
- Understand the art of sharing likes and dislikes. Having common ground helps kids make friends. Teach your kids to try and find the things that other kids like to do that are similar.
- Practice, practice, practice. The dinner table and time with family is a great place to practice these skills. Teach kids to take turns during conversations, wait for appropriate breaks before speaking, inquire about the other person, etc.
- Go places where kids are. If you live in a neighborhood with 100 kids, it’s easy. If you don’t, you’ll have to work a little harder. Try a local park or recreational center. Consider signing your child up for some extracurricular activities (e.g., summer camps or afterschool art classes). If consistent with your beliefs, try getting involved in religious groups. Many of them have activities or classes for youth where your child could meet other kids. Try signing your child up for a recreational sport team (e.g., baseball, soccer, or dance). These places allow you to often meet the other children and their parents.
If you thought elementary was tricky, teens are a whole new ball game. The problem is that if your child hasn’t learned many social skills by now, it can be very difficult to fix at this stage. But, there are things you can do to help.
- Help physically. Just as mentioned above, this is even more critical at this age.
- Make sure your teen has good hygiene. Again, don’t let your teen be the stinky kid.
- Address fixable problems. If your child has horrible acne, go to the doctor. Get prescription help for your teen. If your child is begging for contacts, consider his/her desires (I’m not saying to force contacts on your perfectly happy, glasses-wearing teen), but you get the drift.
- Consider fashion. I’m not suggesting you spend beyond your means to accommodate all the latest fashions, but be aware of the importance of fitting in at this age. There is usually some middle ground that can be reached between parent desires and teens desires (in modesty, cost, etc.)
- Monitor social activities. I know that this isn’t a popular opinion, but many studies show that children are better off when parents are involved. I’m not suggesting you should get involved in every social drama, but know where your kids are and with whom. Follow your teen’s social media accounts. Don’t be afraid to discourage peer interactions that are bad influences.
- Know your teenager’s friends. Know who they are and what they like (it’s even better if you can know anything about their family situation). It allows you to help coach/give advice to your teen in tricky social situations and allows you to “casually ask” without being nosy. It also helps when those friends come over to your house.
- Encourage extracurricular activities. If your teen simply doesn’t have any friends, try to help create situations where he/she can meet other teens and make friends. Extracurricular activities (e.g. sporting teams, clubs of various interests, rec. activities/classes) are all good places for teens to meet others who share similar interests.
- Try to let teens work out problems on their own. Unlike younger children who need lots of intervention, older kids/teens need to learn to work things out for themselves. The great exception is bullying. Most experts agree that adults should get involved to help in cases of bullying.
- Be the desired hang-out place. Create the home where your teen and other teens want to hang out. That may mean having a fully stocked fridge at all times or creating a great hang out room (with comfy couches, big TV, pool table, etc.). When the party is at your house, you can have some semblance of control on what happens. My attitude is that the extra time, money, and resources are well spent if I can help prevent pit falls for my kids. I want my teens to want to be at my house. There is so much during the teen years that is out of the parents control or influence. At least at my house, I know that it is a safe place with ground rules (no inappropriate movies, no drugs or alcohol, etc.)
While I know that this isn’t an exhaustive list, I hope it helps. One thing to keep in mind is your example. Kids imitate what they see. Take time to be social and do things with your own friends. It will help kids to see the importance of friends. Also, don’t be too stressed if your kid isn’t the most popular with a million friends. Most experts agree that to be socially successful, most kids only need a few good friends. You may want to take a look at a previous article, “How to Help Your Kid Not Be Socially Awkward.” Best of luck!
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