Seeing your child’s first friendships emerge can be a very special milestone. Younger children may be interested and want to play near other children, but as they get older, they begin to engage more with a preferred playmate, and with help, learn how to join a group of children playing. As a parent, knowing that your child enjoys the company of children outside of your family circle and that other children enjoy your child’s company can be wonderfully gratifying. Just like other areas of your child’s development; however, there are skills associated with making and keeping friends that need nurturing and encouragement.
Self-regulation is a key ingredient to healthy friendships. Resisting impulsive behavior (the urge to grab an interesting toy when another child is playing with it), taking turns and cooperating with others, and being able to empathize and consider the perspective of someone else, are all essential to being a good friend. Friendship also requires good communication. When young children feel strong emotions (frustration, disappointment) and can control them and express them appropriately (with thoughtful words and not aggression), they are better communicators and have fewer conflicts.
All of these skills take time to develop and are learned through modeling. Here are some simple strategies to help your child develop strong friendship skills.
Talk: One of the easiest ways to help your child understand what it means to be a good friend is simply by talking about it. Discuss different times when your child has been a good friend or use books and stories to talk about friendship. Ask your child questions as you read aloud, such as “Why do you think the boy in the story was a good friend?” “What would you do if you were in the same situation? “What makes you a good friend?” By having conversations about friendship, you are teaching your child how to appreciate similarities and differences, develop empathy and kindness, care for others, and navigate different social circumstances.
Model: Lead by example. In your day to day interactions, think about your tone of voice and the words you use to show appreciation and compromise. By modeling good friendship skills and caring behavior in your own relationships, she can see what those skills look like close up. Include your child when you are doing something that helps others and explain why (let her help you bring soup to a friend or relative who is sick) so that you can demonstrate the empathy you’d like your child to have for others.
Role Play: Role-play different situations to help your child learn what it means to be a good friend. For instance, when you and your child are playing with a toy, practice sharing and taking turns. Use specific language, such as “We have lots of blocks here. Let’s share them so we can work together and build a tower” or “There is one box of crayons. Let’s take turns using the different colors in the box.” You can also role play situations that might cause conflict between two young children, such as fighting over the same toy. Practice with your child strategies she can use the next time she has a problem with a friend, including calming down, labeling and expressing her feelings, and thinking of a solution to a problem.
Practice: Give your child plenty of opportunities to explore friendships with other children her age through visits to the park, or time with other young family members or neighbors. Informal sports games or classes are also great ways to give your child a perfect chance to get to know other children better and even learn how to enter new social groups. This skill can be particularly challenging for young children. Help your child learn how to join others by giving her specific strategies and language to use when entering new social groups. For example, watching others play and then asking to join by offering a new, fun idea. You can help with gentle suggestions, such as “Those children are drawing with crayons, and you have these markers. Maybe you’d like to share so you can use both in your drawings.”
Like many other skills your child is developing, making friends takes time and practice. By talking about what it means to be a good friend, modeling and demonstrating friendship skills in your own relationships, and giving your child opportunities to practice with other children her age, she can develop the self-regulation tools she needs to build a lifetime of meaningful friendships.