How to Help Your Elementary Schooler Make Friends

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There is an old adage that says friends are the family you choose, and there is a lot of truth to that. Consider what your own life would be like without your inner circle of close confidantes—the people you turn to when in need of a good laugh, advice, or a shoulder to cry on. It would feel pretty bleak, right?

That's because friendship is incredibly important to our mental health, and that starts from a young age. Research suggests that even having just one close friend in early childhood helps to shield kids from experiencing excessive internalized symptoms, such as sadness, anxiety, and loneliness, as young adults.

"There are so many amazing reasons why friendships are important to kids, but the biggest one is simply having that companionship that makes you feel such goodness inside," says Roseann Capanna-Hodge, EdD, LPC, BCN, an educational psychologist and therapist. "Our sense of belonging starts young and having those all-important buddies fills our cup at such a young age because we have chosen people in our lives who get us and want to do things with us."

If you watch your children mix among their peers at the playground, you may notice that some kids easily connect with others. There are also children who hang back and play independently, perhaps because the process of making friends does not come as easily to them.

If your elementary schooler falls into the latter category, you may want to consider what you can do to help foster these much-needed relationships. Here is what you need to know about how kids make friends and what you can do to help.

Building Blocks of Friendship

Just because making friends is not a natural-born skill your child possesses does not mean they are not capable of forging these connections. Building blocks essential to forming friendships include developing basic social skills, like sharing and honesty, plus behaviors like taking turns when speaking or saying sorry.

Dr. Capanna-Hodge says that every kid in the world has the ability to make a new pal. It is just that some have innate social skills that draw other kids to them.

"Children that are good at making friends tend to be children that feel good about themselves and at the same time know how to make others feel good by showing interest in them," Dr. Capanna-Hodge explains. "Not only is having back and forth communication a sign of a good friend but so is flexibility in play."

To teach this flexibility to your own child, model the give and take of play with them. When a kid understands—and accepts—that they do not always have to be the boss or have things their way, other children will want to play with them.

"The foundation to being a good friend is having a lot of patience and empathy, as well as being flexible enough to let the other person have their way sometimes," says Dr. Capanna-Hodge.

Learn How Your Child Socializes

If we learned anything during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that there are many different ways to socialize, particularly when you need to get creative. That being said, kids have different approaches to the way in which they socialize with their peers.

Knowing your child's likes and dislikes is important to understanding how they socialize, says Lea Lis, MD, a double board-certified adult and child psychiatrist. For example, if your child is athletic or loves music, these are shared interests that can serve as the building blocks of their friendships.

If your child has not developed interests like these yet, it may require a little strategic planning on your part to put them in situations where they can learn social skills.

"Set them up with playdates with fewer children at your home where they may feel more comfortable," says Dr. Lis. "Or, keep playdates on the shorter side, especially if they might have social skills deficits. Plan to have lots of fun activities and diversion around to prevent conflict."

Model Good Friendship Behavior

When you are a parent, children watch your every move for cues on how to act in everyday life, both inside and outside of the home. With that in mind, it is important to model the aforementioned good friendship behaviors around your child.

"If you want friends, then be a good friend," says Dr. Lis. "Share your stuff, invite people over, cook, and learn new hobbies together. Be generous with your time and money, and lead by example. Do not forget to laugh and have fun, and make it look fun to be a good friend. "

Dr. Capanna-Hodge echoes these sentiments, noting that parents can work on building friendship skills at home with focused play activities that emphasize patience, empathy, and problem-solving skills.

"When we teach our children to be autonomous and how to problem solve when they fail, they learn how to not just cope with stress, they learn how to regulate their brain and body, which makes them much more resilient," she says. "Resilient kids are not only great friends but leaders, too, because they have that inner confidence that only comes with problem-solving through failures."

Help Arrange Playdates

If your child attends daycare or is of school age, ask their teacher which children they tend to gravitate towards, or those who appear to be compatible. From there, reach out to their parent or guardian to inquire about arranging a playdate.

You also should give your child some input on who to invite over for a playdate. After all, you want to empower them to ultimately be able to suggest playdates and get-togethers on their own at some point.

If playdates are new to your child, keep them brief, perhaps no more than 1 hour and definitely not more than 2 hours. Create the event around a pre-determined activity like going to the park, baking treats, riding bikes, or doing a craft.

By arranging the playdate, your child will not feel the pressure of having to "host" someone—a skill that takes time to learn and can be daunting to young children. This is especially important for those who may experience some form of social anxiety.

Additionally, research indicates that playdates tend to have a positive impact on a child's overall adjustment. There is even some evidence that they may mitigate loneliness and depression.

Discuss What Makes a Good Friend

Sure, you know what makes a great friend, but does your child? It is important to have discussions with your child about what they expect from a friend and, in turn, the importance of being a good friend to others.

After all, research indicates that a child's mental and physical health, along with their overall wellbeing is influenced by the ability—or inability—to have quality friendships.

Start a conversation about situations you both have observed at the park or at school about the different ways in which kids behave. You can talk about both positive behaviors and less-than-desirable ones, but always from the perspective of why another child may act a certain way.

If your child understands the why behind another person's actions, it will help them gain a deeper appreciation of what makes each of us unique, and why being inclusive is so important. Create a list of adjectives with your child describing what you both consider to be a good friend. Then practice implementing those ideas into your everyday life.

Try Role-Playing at Home

Fear of the unknown can be a challenge for both kids and adults. Help your child learn how to break the ice with kids, invite them to play, or have a conversation with another person by role-playing at home.

You also use this strategy if they are nervous about an upcoming playdate. In fact, research indicates that role-playing allows kids to practice their skills in a safe environment so that they can become competent.

If role-playing before a playdate, ask them what they would like to do on a playdate with a friend. Encourage them to think about how to make that friend feel comfortable. And ask them what snacks they think this friend might enjoy.

Do a practice run of a playdate from start to finish, beginning with the moment a friend arrives at your home until the very end when the kids say goodbye. This offers up ideas to your child on etiquette, while also calming any nerves about what to expect.

You also can use role-playing to practice conversation skills or even address how they might approach someone at soccer practice, on the playground, or at recess. Having some ideas on how to respond in a given situation can go a long way in easing nerves and helping a more reserved child know how to take the initiative when it comes to making friends.

What to Avoid When Fostering Friendships

For every list of "dos," of course there are some "don'ts," and that applies to helping your elementary schooler make friends as well.

Drs. Capanna-Hodge and Lis both encourage parents to arrange playdates, particularly those that are kept to a limited amount of time and occur in a place that makes your child feel comfortable. Playdates and social activities are how kids learn all those explicit and implicit social rules that become the foundation for a lifetime of social interaction.

"Some children learn more easily than others and may need more practice with learning how to regulate their brain and body, which is perfectly OK but requires reinforcement," says Dr. Capanna-Hodge.

However, if your child doesn't click with a certain playmate, do not force it. Just as you likely do not get along with everyone you have met in this world, neither will your child. This doesn't mean these two might not become friends down the road, but repeatedly trying to make your kid play with someone they do not mesh with will only make them more anxious or reluctant to have playdates.

When planning a playdate, choose activities and games that generally make your child feel good about themselves. While it might go without saying, forcing them to, for example, play soccer with a potential buddy when they do not care for or know how to play the sport can lead to feelings of embarrassment and frustration.

A Word From Verywell

When it comes to making friends, some kids will have an easier time with it than others. If your elementary schooler is struggling to make friends, you do not have to just stand back and watch.

While you should not take over the process for them, there are things you can do to help ease them into the process of making friends. Try role-playing with them and talking about what makes a good friend.

And, if your child seems to be particularly stricken with fear or anxiety over the prospect of talking to or interacting with others, you may want to talk to a healthcare provider. It is possible that your child is struggling with social anxiety or another anxiety disorder.

 

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