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Learning to make friends

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Learning to make friends is one of the most significant tasks in a child's early social development. Friendships play an important role in a child's perception of schools as well as school performance. Lack of friends or rejection by peers may negatively affect feelings about school, cause school avoidance or truancy, and cause lower school performance. This article covers what you can expect from your child and how you can set up him or her for success.

What to Expect

A child usually begins the process of learning to make friends during the second year of life playing alongside another toddler. Although there is not much interaction, children notice that they are not much different from others and they are not the center of the universe.

During the preschool years, children develop social skills they'll need to establish and maintain friendship. Though they're still very self-centered, children of this age begin to start contacts with strangers. They negotiate roles and learn to compromise. Somehow they manage rejection, claim their possessions, and learn ways to settle conflicts. Friends do things to reinforce each other's acceptable behavior and even model behavior for one another.

How to Help

Parents can help guide the social development of their young children in several ways. First and foremost, model positive social interactions. Your child watches what you do. How you manage social situations affects the way your child views social interaction.

Suggest words and actions your child can use. Encourage your child to smile and make eye contact with others. Suggest some words to use when a child wants to join others in ongoing play. Add some ways to be sure she will be accepted, like "Can I be the visiting grandma?" instead of "I want to play house, too."

Provide times when your child can interact with peers through "play dates," in a safe and appropriate environment such as your home or a playground setting. If you think he’s having a difficult time making friends, try to arrange special play activities with slightly older children. They’ll provide examples of effective social skills. If your child is anxious about using his social skills, give him an opportunity to play with a younger child. He can take a lead role and this may give his self-esteem a needed boost.

As your child gets older, try to stay out of the way so he can negotiate conflict and manage the give and take of friendship. Step in only when there is imminent danger or a squabble has gone out of control.

Watch your language. Don’t categorize and don't allow others to label your child as "shy," "bossy," or "hard to get along with." Social skills sometimes take a lifetime to perfect. We all know adults who are not experts at social interaction. Instead of referring to your child as "shy," you can say he is "cautious in new situations." This phrasing describes the behavior in a positive, context-specific way.

Encourage a child’s positive efforts to get along with others, even when such attempts fail. Acknowledge your child's feelings by telling him you know it’s hard, especially if he’s cautious in new situations. Ask questions and help him think about what the other child may need in a friend. Remind your child that making friends sometimes takes a long time, so it’s important to keep trying.

Erna Fishhaut

Revised by Lori Hendrickson, Extension educator in family resiliency

Reviewed in 2018

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