Social development in young children: Helping your child make friends

Help your child’s social development by teaching him to play well with his friends.

Every parent wants to help his or her child make friends. Children who have a stable social network usually do better in life over all. However, especially for shy children, making friends can be a challenge. How can parents help?

Parents can help in many ways. First, if your child is old enough to handle separation from you for a few hours (that is, when you try to leave, he doesn’t cry much or at all), send him to preschool. There, he’ll meet plenty of kids his own age, and he’ll naturally begin to play with some of them.

Keep in mind that if he’s younger than three, he’s not yet developmentally capable of playing WITH other children, only BESIDE them. Children only begin to interact and engage in cooperative play around age three or four. Before this point, any “friends” a child has a usually his parents’ friends’ children, who just play along side him.

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Social development in young children: Helping your child make friends

Once your child meets others at preschool, ask him for the names of the kids he often times plays with. When you go to pick him up, talk to their mothers, exchange phone numbers, and set up play dates. Aim for a one-on-one situation at first (make sure you never have an odd number of children if they’re just getting to know each other – someone is almost always left out). Get to be friends with the child’s mother, and maybe even exchange play dates, so your children can play, and you can get some time off!

Any activities that you attend are also places you can meet new friends. Talk to other mothers at the park, in dance class, at story time in the library. Make contact with these mothers and arrange more play dates.

If your child doesn’t seem to be playing well with others, he may be too young (he is if he ignores the other child and plays by himself, directing little attention to the fact that there’s even another child around). In this case, you’ll just have to wait for him to get older. However, if he doesn’t seem to be good at sharing or taking turns, early play dates are good times to instruct him on these social graces. Lead the play a little bit; offer the guest the first choice of toys or snacks. Show your child interactive play (such as rolling a ball back and forth). He doesn’t understand that two can play a game unless he sees someone modeling it for him. Model it so he can learn to be a good friend.

By the time children are four or five, they’re usually fine on their own, and often times playing imaginary games (“pretend”). Encourage your child to play with his friends, and invite them over for him. When he goes to preschool or to the playground, encourage him to introduce himself to other kids and ask to play too.

Teach him good “group entry” skills. That is, teach him to approach a group of children and ask, politely, if he can play too. For example, he may say, “Hi, I’m John. May I join your game?” Children with bad group entry skills (those who are too shy, or who enter in a destructive manner) are often rejected by their peers. By teaching him to ask politely to join (and encouraging a shy child to try it out – they will quickly learn that asking in this way will gain them access, making them a little less shy), he will gain good interaction skills.

Also, you should teach your child that if another asks to join their game, they should accept, and include that child. Your child must be polite whether he is trying to gain entry to a group or if he is approached by another child wanting to join his. If you see inappropriate behavior by any of the children, step in and say something like, “John, now, it’s polite to let others join your game. Think of how you would feel if you were rejected.” This lesson will be lost on children younger than four, and maybe even five. However, until this age, children don’t really engage in large-group play anyway.

If you encourage your child to be friendly, and provide him with the opportunities to meet and get to know other kids, he’ll make friends pretty quickly. Expect him to have many playmates, but no real “best friends” at this age – that will come later, around school age (when most children are pretty good about making their own friends).

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