For some elementary-school age children, making friends is as simple as asking, “Would you be my friend?” Others are nervous and shy among a group of unfamiliar children. They may want to reach out, but don’t know how.
But even children who lack social skills can learn how to build relationships.
“A variety of skills are required for making friends, including problem solving, understanding non-verbal cues, sharing and approaching someone new without anxiety,” says Elizabeth Newlin, MD, medical and program director of the Adolescent Treatment Program
at The Menninger Clinic. Because these skills don’t always come naturally for children with more introverted or shy temperaments, practicing social interaction can help children navigate the often overwhelming elementary-school social scene
Here’s what parents can do to help:
Provide opportunity for social interaction. “So many of our children are overscheduled with structured social interaction, such as sports teams or other activities, that they don’t have much of a chance to develop social skills,” Dr. Newlin says. While after-school activities teach valuable skills like teamwork, they should be balanced with unstructured social interaction such as playing on the playground, or play dates, she says.
Assess their friendship skills. Ask your child what methods she has tried to make friends and give positive reinforcement for her efforts. Observe your child interacting with others. Also, befriend your child’s teacher for more insight into relationships with fellow students, and for help establishing classroom friendships.
Teach them how to break the ice. According to Dr. Newlin, good manners, relaxed body language and a general sense of being open to others go a long way toward making friends. Teach your child how to introduce himself with confidence. Encourage him to seek out smaller groups of children, which may be less intimidating. If introducing himself seems too scary, suggest he look for another opportunity to connect – like sharing school supplies, or chiming in on a conversation about something he likes (“You like to draw? I like to draw too!”).
Show compassion. “The most important thing is to be there for your child and to give loving support,” Dr. Newlin says, adding that it helps to empathize with your child and demonstrate humor about your own social faults or shortcomings. If you were always outgoing as a child, it may be hard to understand why your child doesn’t have a ton of friends. But do your best to accept your child’s individual temperament, she says. “Don’t blame your child for what may be a skills deficit,” she adds. “Instead, help your child recognize his or her own strengths.”