How to make friends – just talk to people, right? But simple as it sounds, there’s a lot more involved than just saying hello. So how can we give our kids the skills they need to form meaningful connections and make good friends?
Hey there, shy guy!
Some children seem to naturally form friendships with apparently no effort. Gregarious and confident, their presence fills the room, and everyone is drawn to them. But what about the shy kids who hang back and go unnoticed? Simply telling them to “go on over and say hello” isn’t going to work, but there are things we as parents can do to help.
The first step
The first step to any new friendship is the initial introduction. Introductions to someone new could be via mutual friends, clubs and classes, or being partnered to work on a project together in class. It’s amazing how many lifelong friendships are formed by pairing seemingly opposite personalities in the classroom!
To make the most of the introduction, your child will need certain social skills, and the great thing about social skills is that they can be learnt.
Take another look at those confident, gregarious kids. Are their parents and older siblings just the same? Chances are that the kids are naturally modelling the behaviours they see everyday within their own family.
If you are not a confident person yourself, this is where the practice of “fake it till you make it” can work wonders. Demonstrating confident social behaviour provides your child the opportunity to observe and learn from you. Making a habit of acting confident can lead to an actual boost in confidence, and practice makes perfect!
How to be “confident”
Confidence is the quiet inner knowledge that you are capable. To make friends you need to be capable of holding a conversation, listening, cooperating, observing, compromising, regulating emotions and empathising. It’s a big list, but these are all learnable skills that parents can help children develop.
Before approaching a group of potential new friends, encourage your child to take a moment to see what they are doing and look for ways to fit in. Could they be a character in their role-playing game, or make up the number in a team? Is there something your child could help with? Remind your child to not try to change the game or dominate (the aim is to fit in) and if the other kids don’t want them to join in on this occasion, they should find something else to do instead and try again another time.
Don’t get upset if at first you get a knockback – you’ve planted the idea of potential friendship, and now those potential new friends need time to observe you too.
The first conversations are about getting to know each other and finding common ground. Trade information about likes and dislikes, take the time to listen to answers, and reciprocate with thoughts and experiences. Parents can help practice through role playing and modelling physical cues like appropriate eye contact and body language to show attentive listening and engagement.
Cooperate and compromise
Finding something that requires cooperation provides the opportunity to work together towards a common goal. This could be a craft or school project, or agreeing to be certain characters in a game, even if that means compromise in giving up the coveted lead-character role. Practicing negotiation skills for fair turn-taking and task sharing can give your child the confidence to navigate conflict.
While new friendships are still in their developing stage, it’s best to avoid competitive activities that could lead to conflict or upset. Parents can help minimise the risk of conflict by putting away prized possessions or competitive toys prior to any playdates.
Learning to regulate emotions – and understand others’ emotions – plays an important role in being able to maintain friendships. Parenting style often sets the foundations for this skill.
Children whose parents talk to them sympathetically about difficult moods and teach constructive ways to handle feelings are better able to regulate their own emotions and empathise with others. Avoid dismissing your child’s emotions and feelings with comments like “You’re just being sensitive” or punishing your child for displaying negative emotions that they are still learning to control. Talk to them about why they feel the way they do and devise strategies together that can help your child recognise triggers and manage emotions.
Fitting in when you’re different
Children are wonderfully unique, and those who are perceived to have less in common with their peers may find it harder to fit in. Differences in race, gender, religion, physical or intellectual ability needn’t be a barrier to meaningful friendships but may require a little more understanding or input to find a common bond. Making friends when you are different makes those friendships even more special!
A one-on-one playdate helps children focus on each other and eliminates opportunity for exclusion. Do a little research first to discover any common interests (Minecraft, nature, scootering, Lego etc.) and design the playdate around that. If your child has autism or anxiety, choose a location that is familiar and comfortable for them. You may need several short one-on-one playdates before expanding to group playdates.
Preparation and coaching can greatly improve the chances of success. Familiarising your child with different cultures and beliefs and modelling inclusion will help your child develop socially, opening up a world of new experiences and opportunities.
Children with a ADHD diagnosis are often considered loud, disruptive, silly, or aggressive, but despite their challenges, their parents will know them as warm, loving, funny and entertaining. If your child has ADHD they will need more help learning to control impulses and understand consequences of their actions. Invest time in helping your child recognise their own cues to escalating emotions and discuss strategies that will help them regulate emotions and outbursts. This is especially important as your child approaches teenage years. There are resources available online at ADHD Australia and the ADHD Foundation.
If your child is on the autism spectrum, they may require more help with understanding emotions, facial expressions, and body language. We have a great article about helping kids with ASD make friends.
This article was featured in Issue 50 of our printed magazine, published Feb/Mar 2022.