As I’ve got older I’ve joked a few times about how making friends is so much easier when you’re a child. You just walk up to another child and start playing with them. Easy! Except, it’s not actually that easy is it.
Making friends can be so hard for all of us at times. And it can be just as hard as parents to see our children struggle to make friends.
The thing is, we can’t always physically be there to help our children to make friends but there are several things we can work on with them to set them up for forming great friendships as they venture into the world of playgroups, nursery and school.
Focus on your relationship with them
One of the most important things you can do to help your children build healthy relationships in the future, is to concentrate on your own relationship with them.
Various studies have been done that show that children with a secure attachment to their parents go on to have better, closer friendships. If you’re not familiar with the term, John Bowlby (1988) explains that a child is securely attached if they’re confident of their parents’ support. For securely attached children, the parent acts like a safe, secure base that they can explore the world from.
Securely attached children will keep track of their parent while they’re exploring, checking back in with them now and then. They also go back to their parent or reach out to them physically when they’re scared or upset, and they’re comforted by being close to them.
Whether or not a child is securely attached is partly down to their innate nature, but there are things we can do as parents to encourage it to.
Researchers have found that parents who are sensitive and responsive to their child’s needs tend to have children who are then securely attached. This doesn’t mean rushing to our babies every time they make a noise in the night, but it does mean getting to know their different cries and responding to them with love and care.
Parenting our children in a way that is sensitive to their feelings and responding in a caring, thoughtful way to their needs can really help set our children up for building healthy relationships with others in the future.
Teach them to be kind
Studies have shown that children who are more willing to help others are more likely to have high-quality friendships. It makes sense that children who are kind and happy to help others will develop stronger relationships and find it easier to make friends in the first place.
You can help your child grow up to be kind by modelling kind behaviour yourself. Let your child see you hold the door open for other people, help someone reach something in the supermarket and react with empathy when someone you know is sad or angry.
Empathy is really important for helping children be kind and foster positive relationships.
You can help your child be more empathetic by using any and every opportunity that comes up to talk about how other people are feeling. If another child falls over at the park you can talk about how they are hurt and how that might make them feel sad, angry or scared. When you’re reading a book or watching TV together and something bad happens to one of the characters then you can talk about how they might be feeling about it.
We read ‘Dogger‘ recently and it’s been a great opportunity to talk about several different emotions and to highlight how kind Dave’s sister is when she gets Dogger back for him.
Help them to regulate their emotions
If your child has a tendency to be aggressive they might find it harder to make friends.
A study by Carlson et al (1984) found that, not really surprisingly, children reject people that they see to be aggressive, disruptive and irritable. And various studies have shown that popularity in preschool is tied in with kindness and low aggression.
So to help your child make friends you need to first help them learn to regulate their emotions.
There were several studies carried out in the 90s that found that parenting style can have a big impact on how well children can regulate their emotions. They found that children whose parents talked to them about their big emotions in a sympathetic, constructive way were more able to then control those emotions.
On the other hand, when parents reacted to those negative emotions by telling the child they’re just being silly or by punishing them for being angry or upset, the children tended to find it harder to regulate those emotions.
It’s not always easy, but when your child is angry or really upset, try and find a way to calm them down and talk about their feelings. Tell them that you understand and that everyone feels angry and sad at times. Don’t just dismiss their feelings.
Teach them to be good conversationists
I’m not saying we need to start coaching our children on politics and the arts so that they always have something to talk about, but there are some skills we can teach our children that can help their communication skills and their ability to have good conversations.
This in turn can help them to make friends.
A study by Bierman (1986) found that children became more popular with their peers after they’d had some training in active listening. This is basically behaving in a way that makes it clear to the other person that we’re paying attention to what they’re saying.
We can help our children to be active listeners by teaching them to make appropriate eye contact during conversations, to let the other person speak without interrupting and to then make relevant responses to show they’ve listened and understood what was said to them.
Help them plan for social situations
If. for example, your child has tried to make friends at the local park and it hasn’t gone well for them, then you can talk about what they could do differently next time.
You can discuss how your child could hold back for a minute if he sees children playing a game that he wants to join in with. Rather than just jumping straight in he could have a think about what he could do to fit in with the game they’re playing. So if the children are playing a make believe game where they’re selling ice creams, then maybe your child could ask to join in as a customer wanting to buy some.
This would also be a good time to talk about appropriate social behaviours. So explain to them that they shouldn’t try and take over or change the game that the other children are playing. And if the others don’t want to let you join in then don’t argue with them about it and try to force them to let you play, just walk away and find a new game to play or another child to try again with.
Children really are all so different; some will naturally make friends easily and others will find the whole thing harder to get right.
With some guidance though, and hopefully with the help from these tips, our children can learn to form solid, healthy friendships that will last.
Do you have any other tips or bits of advice for helping children to make friends?