Making friends can be a challenge for adults, but it can be especially trying for children who are building untried social skills. The ability to make and keep friends is key to social and emotional development; these are skills that children will use throughout their lifetimes at school, work, and in intimate relationships.
Lead by Example
Children’s interactions with parents provide important first lessons on how to treat one another and expectations on how to be treated. In fact, experts at Purdue University show that from as early as infancy, children can learn important social skills via interactions with parents, such as taking turns in conversations. When we treat children with respect and fairness, and show them empathy and compassion, they learn to emulate our behaviors. This also sets up healthy expectations of how children should be treated by others.
Identify Positive Characteristics
Converse with your children about positive and negative characteristics of friends. Phrases such as, “It makes me feel good when my friend is a good listener,” or "I don’t like it when my friends tease me,” will help convey your values to children. Books such as “Life Lists for Teens: Tips, Steps, Hints, and How-Tos for Growing Up," by Pamela Espeland, can help identify quality characteristics of friends including trustworthiness, healthy risk taking behavior, conflict resolution skills, and relationship quality with others.
Coach Kids on Behavior
Just like learning to ride a bike or solve a math problem, kids need to learn the appropriate steps. Offer coaching at various stages of making and keeping friends. Phrasing it in the form of questions allows children to feel as if they are making the choices on their own. For example instead of saying, “Go ask him to play,” you might say, “What do you think would happen if you walked over and asked him to play soccer with you,” or better yet, “How would you feel if he came over and asked you to play soccer?”
Teach Coping Skills
Inevitably things will go wrong and feelings will be hurt or a conflict will ensue. Be careful to not let your own emotions get involved and allow your child to resolve the conflict on his own, when capable. PBS Parents also recommends, “If your child gets teased, bullied, or rejected, try to help your child find perspective on the behavior.” Acknowledge y9our child’s feelings, but also reflect on ways to cope with the feelings, such as, “Have you ever said something to a friend that you later regretted?” Teaching children to accept that conflict is a normal part of relationships will enhance their ability to cope during the difficult times.