One of the many sad facts to emerge from the ongoing pandemic we are all living through, is that as children have had limited contact with the outside world, it has made some reluctant or anxious to make contact again and start to play out and make new friends. Children may need a little more help just now to help them navigate their social world and build quality friendships.

Just like adults, all children are different and some cope easily with managing a group of friends and social activities with ease and confidence, whereas others may struggle. Building friendships is dependent on a child’s emotional skills, self regulation skills and their degree of social competence. If your child isn’t a social butterfly but would like to make more friends there are things parents can help with.

Making friends is a very personal business but you can help your child by making sure they have good social skills. Social skills aren’t something your child has or doesn’t have, they are skills that can be learned and strengthened with a little effort and a lot of patience. Social skills don’t come naturally to all children but with practice they will get better.

Ways to help your kids

Praise good behavior

With very young children playdates are an opportunity for parents to observe their child’s behavior and a great way for little ones to flex their social muscles in a safe environment. Talk with your child before the playdate about being a good host, sharing of toys and turn taking and what to do if things don’t work out as expected. Parents should try to avoid stepping in to resolve matters unless they feel the situation is getting out of hand. Talk with your child afterwards to review what went well, it’s always best to focus on the positives and reinforcing good behaviors rather than pointing out the one thing that went badly.

Introductions from a young age

For older children, who are starting school, it can also be tricky to make new friends or to maintain old friendships in the new school environment. Make sure that they have had lots of opportunities to cultivate empathy early on in their lives so they understand the need for taking turns, sharing and being considerate of others feelings. Practice and rehearse social skills in a safe and warm environment, use family members and close friends to help. For example, a child can practice just saying hello when visitors arrive until they become comfortable with the norms of meeting someone new. As they get more confident you could try, “Hello I’m Jacob, what’s your name? This then becomes an opening line for a potential new friendship. Talking to new people can be quite intimidating so making sure your child has a few ‘opening lines’ at their disposal is really helpful.

Help to resolve the conflict

Playtimes at school will inevitably led to fallings out and allegiances breaking and reforming. The ability to resolve a conflict is a crucial part of being able to make and keep friends and falling out with your mates is an everyday part of primary school life. When arguments arise at home, try and take a step back and see if the children can work out the problem. Offer praise if they can, and reinforce what they did that was good and helped to fix the issue. If you have to step in once the dust has settled go back and talk about how they could have fixed things. This is difficult to do and children needs lots of practice! Helping children to think about and understand how they feel when these things are happening can also be beneficial. Encourage them to put a name to what they are feeling and what others might have been feeling too. “Well I think you were feeling a bit frustrated when you kicked the ball at the window...” “How do you think Jack felt when you shouted at him?” “How would you have felt”?

Children often make friends at school through playing the same game together so you can help by making sure your child knows the rules or if he doesn’t like the game, suggest a different game he could ask classmates to play.

Most schools have a buddy system or playground friend system in place. If they do, make sure your child is aware of this and encourage them to seek them out.

“Friendships are critical in helping children improve their communication, sharing, empathy, problem solving and creativity...friends help children learn to get along with others and interact with the world.” Rachel Theise clinical professor and child psychologist at NYU Child Study Centre, so having friends is not only fun, it’s important. Friendships give children a sense of belonging and help them build their self-esteem. Friendships help children develop important life skills and children who have these skills are less likely to have social and emotional difficulties late in life.

If your children are experiencing issues with friends at school which falls outside the usual “fallings out” we would expect in the playground, then it is probably a good idea to have a word with your child’s teacher and get their perspective.

Contributed by Christine Havercroft, OjO Education Director

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