There’s a lot that goes into making and keeping friends. During the pandemic, your child may have had fewer opportunities to develop social skills with their peers. If your toddler, preschooler, or grade-schooler struggles with social skills, they may need some coaching on how to connect with other kids. In this article, we talk about what parents can do to encourage healthy friendships.
Over the last decade various studies have concluded that when parents form healthy relationships, also known as secure attachments, with their child early on, the child benefits socially through the school years. A group of 1991 studies shows that forming strong bonds with caregivers as a baby helps children make friends when they are toddlers and throughout preschool. When babies form secure attachments with caregivers, it leads to greater popularity with friends during the preschool years. This ultimately results in more supportive friendships.
Renowned psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel often refers to the four S’s of attachment, in which a child feels safe, soothed, seen, and secure. This creates what is called a secure attachment. Children with a secure attachment can see their caretaker as a secure rock that they can trust will be there for them. They can move freely, but they can always come back to the parent to feel safe. They can trust others to be there for them when they need them. They can feel secure in themselves while engaging in healthy relationships and friendships.
A healthy balance
What is key here is that parents aren’t perfect but are able to empathize with their child’s experience and be there for the child. In one study, mothers who were moderately involved in organizing playdates for their preschoolers fostered their child’s growing popularity with peers over time. This is in contrast to mothers who were either over-or under-involved. This doesn’t mean parents should control every aspect of their child’s social life. It means they should encourage their children and give them opportunities to practice their social skills. This is also an effective approach for young children who appear to be getting off to a poor start in peer relations. Parents can help prepare their child for social interactions whether those be during playdates, school, or in group settings like the park.
Practicing social interactions
One way to prepare your child for social interactions is by teaching them conversation starters. For example, teach them phrases such as: “I liked your show-and-tell” or “Can I play with you?” Parents can also teach by practicing unexpected situations using “what-if” scenarios. For example ask them, “What if your friend says you can’t play with him?”
TV can also be a practice tool. As you watch with your child, ask questions like, “How do you think her friend is going to react to what she said? What would you say if someone said that to you?”
Teaching your child what to say to other kids is a good start. But it doesn’t have to end there. Rehearse and role-play social situations regularly. Kids with learning and thinking differences can often learn the script but have trouble calling it up under pressure. That means ongoing practice is key.
Have a conversation
Parents can also help their children develop healthy friendships by talking about different kinds of friends. Kids need to know that friends aren’t one size fits all. Parents can explain to their child that there are friends to play sports with, friends to do school projects with, and friends they can share secrets with—but that not all of their friends will be all of those things. Remembering the different kinds of friends and the limitations of a friendship can help avoid hurt feelings.
Another way to encourage healthy friendships is by talking about what makes a good friend. Talk about the qualities of a good friend. It can help your child know what to look for, and also how to be a good friend themselves. Parents can make this a fun art activity by writing it on a poster or mapping it out. Some examples include:
- Good friends don’t hurt each other’s feelings.
- Good friends trust each other and help each other solve problems.
- Good friends can disagree without being mean.
By establishing the importance of friendships and providing your child opportunities to be active and social, you are preparing them for a lifetime of good relationship skills.
Ladd, G.W., and C.H. Hart 1992. Creating informal play opportunities: Are parents’ and preschoolers’ initiations related to children’s competence with peers? Developmental Psychology 28:1179-1187.
Webster-Stratton, C. 1990. Long-term follow-up of families with young conduct problem children: From preschool to grade school. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology 19(2):144-149.
Webster-Stratton, C., T. Hollinsworth, and M. Kolpacoff 1989. The long-term effectiveness and clinical significance of three cost-effective training programs for families with conduct-problem children. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 57(4):550-553.