Helping Your Child Make Friends

Our brains are hard-wired to develop social relationships, and infants as young as 4 – 6 weeks demonstrate social skills with their smiling and cooing. Research consistently demonstrates the importance of our social relationships, including friendships, in our overall health.

However, the social skills necessary to develop friendships must be learned and reinforced in childhood to assure lifelong skills. This is even more important in today’s environment, filled with social media in which friends are more virtual than real. Below we’ve provided some practical information for parents on helping children develop and maintain healthy friendships.

Infants & Toddlers

Research shows, children who have experienced secure attachments during infancy are more likely to develop healthy friendships later in childhood.

The best foundation parents can provide their infants is to help them develop strong emotional attachments early in life. Here are just a few ways that help infants bond with their parents – most will probably come naturally to you as you enjoy your baby.

  • Respond to your baby’s nonverbal cues. Smile at her when she smiles.
  • Talk with your baby face to face.
  • Remember to set aside your cell phone (except for scheduled times during the day).
  • Pause during your conversations with your baby to allow him to respond back to you.
  • Make faces and see if your baby will try to copy you.
  • Daily routines help your infant feel secure in her environment.
  • Remember to have fun and enjoy your baby! Read to him, laugh with him, cuddle him. In addition, make sure to take time for yourself so you have emotional energy to invest in your baby. Take a walk or take a deep breath, and ask others for help.

Preschoolers

Conversational skills, emotional self-control, and personal chara-cteristics such as kindness and generosity can all be practiced at home and your children will feel more comfortable and competent in social situations as a result.

  • Help your child develop conversational skills. Maintain eye contact as often as possible when talking with your child and encourage your child to look at you when he is talking, and to look directly at others’ faces during conversations.
  • Help your child learn how to identify his own emotions and those of others. Practice naming them.
  • Help your child develop social skills. The playground can be a training center for developing social skills, and you can help coach your child through the social situations that ensue. Play dates in your home can also provide social learning opportunities.
  • If your preschooler tends to become anxious or fearful in social situations, please talk with your pediatrician or her teacher.

Elementary Age Children

Teaching children empathy and emotional self control will have life long benefits, including the development and maintenance of friendships.

This is often termed “emotion coaching”, as it helps children learn how to keep their responses to negative emotions under control. Some hints on emotional coaching:

  • Don’t trivialize or dismiss negative emotions in your child by saying such comments as: “You are being silly.” “Don’t get angry.” “I can’t stand it when you are acting mean.” “Don’t be scared, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” “Stop crying.” Displaying emotions is how the body releases stress. Emotions can be affirmed as real, while redirecting negative emotions into something positive. “I know you’re angry, let’s talk about how you’re feeling”
  • Listen empathetically when your child is describing his emotions. Restate his emotions so he knows you understand. “I can understand why you would feel so angry.”
  • Differentiate inappropriate behavior (which is never acceptable) from negative emotions (which are acceptable).
  • Read books with your child that discuss emotions and positive responses.
  • Other skills you can help your child develop include active listening skills, and you can practice these at the dinner table.
    • Look directly at the speaker while she is talking.
    • Show interest in what the other person is saying.
    • Ask appropriate questions to learn more.
    • Don’t monopolize the conversation or redirect the conversation to another topic.

Adolescents

Healthy friendships can help adolescents navigate difficult situations, develop autonomy, perform better in school, become more self-confident and improve their social skills.

The definition and perceptions of friendship are changing because of the pervasive use of social media, so your adolescent may need some guidance regarding healthy friendships.

  • Ask your teen to think about the qualities they value in a friend and remind your teen that not every friend will be a “best friend” – nor should they be.
  • Discuss how social media has changed the definition of friends and limit your adolescent’s time on social media. Increased time on social media is linked to adolescent depression.
  • Continue to practice conversational and listening skills at home and discuss conflict as a natural and inherent component of relationships.
  • Discuss the signs of an unhealthy or controlling relationship. A controlling dating partner…
    attempts to isolate your teen from other relationships / other friends by making your teen feel guilty for spending time with others.
    makes veiled or overt threats. “If you leave me, I will hurt myself.”
    talks about “protecting” your teen – often wanting to know everything your teen does and where she is at all times.
  • Essentially, STAY CONNECTED TO YOUR TEEN. Adolescents are less likely to participate in all high risk behaviors when they are connected to their parents.

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