How Kids Make and Keep Friends

Girls laughing together with books in their hands

Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee

Having a best friend, playing with other children, and going to birthday parties are routine activities for most kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that "making friends is one of the most important missions of middle childhood—a social skill that will endure throughout their lives."

Friendships help kids develop emotionally and morally and boost social skills. Not only do kids learn how to communicate with others, but healthy friendships can be instrumental in helping them learn to control their emotions and express their feelings constructively. However, some children struggle socially and have trouble making and keeping friends.

If your child doesn't appear to have friends or is rarely (or never) invited to play with other children, this can be distressing for both of you. Especially as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, many children may need extra support reconnecting with their peers. There are many ways you can help them navigate their social world and build quality friendships.

Why Friendships Are Important

Making friends is a vital part of growing up and an important part of a child's social and emotional development. Friendships help kids build self-esteem and confidence. Positive friendships also may provide a protective barrier against bullying.

There is some research that indicates that having quality friendships may help deter bullies and in cases where bullying does occur, may make it easier for kids to cope. Healthy friendships also teach important life skills, such as how to collaborate with others.

Kids with solid friendships learn how to resolve conflicts and build social competence.

Healthy friendships also can be empowering for kids, providing a sense of belonging and identity. In these situations, peer pressure becomes a positive, especially if kids encourage one another to build interest in volunteering and social justice.

What's more, friendships are important at almost every age. Even toddlers seem to play together and have friends, even though group play doesn't fully evolve until age 3. So, it's never too early to help your child develop friendship-making skills.

If you aren't sure if your child has friends, talk to their teachers to see how they interact with other kids at school. You can also ask your child about their friendships to get a better idea of how well they're making friends.

Additionally, if they're comfortable with the number of friends they have, avoid turning the concept of making friends into a bigger issue than it needs to be. Remember that while some kids seem to have scores of friends, for others just a few good friends are enough.

How to Help Kids Make Friends

Although friendship is an important part of life, not every child is gifted in making friends, and that is OK. Making and keeping friends is a skill that can be learned. After months of restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many kids are now out of practice. With a little effort, bravery, and patience, your child will soon have a buddy or two they can spend time with.

Begin by discovering how your child is feeling about socializing. The reality of living through the pandemic may have caused your child to drift away from the friends they had. They might feel alone and isolated and unsure how to reach out. They may feel wary about starting to socialize again and returning to in-person school.

Once you have identified how your child feels—whether they are content or feel stuck—you can come up with a plan to help them develop the social skills they need to build healthy friendships. the skills you can work on with them.

Build Conversation Skills

From taking turns while talking to asking questions about others, learning how to start and maintain conversations with others is a skill that your child may need to refine. Until your child learns how to naturally take cues from others when having a conversation, equip them with questions they can ask like "What do you do for fun?" or "Do you have any pets?"

You also can use television shows as illustrations of how people have friendly conversations. Point out things like body language, tone of voice, and pauses in the conversation—all of which are important cues when talking with others. Role-playing conversations can help them get the practice they need.

Work on Listening

Part of being a good friend is having solid social skills and knowing how to show interest in another person. For this reason, you may want to work on your child's ability to listen to and empathize with others.

Showing compassion and concern for other people in a healthy way can open the door to friendship. This skill is especially relevant after the stresses of the pandemic. Have your child identify ways they can show compassion toward other kids their age.

Talk to your child about recognizing when someone is going through a tough time. Coach them on how to offer some extra kindness. For instance, your child could make cookies for a friend whose pet is sick or send a card to someone who lost a loved one. Taking time to show someone that you care is a great way to show empathy to a potential new friend.

Look for Opportunities to Meet Peers

If your child doesn't have friends, it may simply be that they have not had enough chances to make them. Getting involved in plenty of activities with children their age who have similar interests can be a great way to find friends. It may be helpful to provide your child extra opportunities to meet kids they will connect with.

Look for ways to get your child involved in school or extracurricular activities. Of course, be sensitive to your child's energy level as well as their personality type. You don't want to overschedule introverted children who need time alone to recharge.

Where to Find Friendship Opportunities

Regardless of what types of activities your child enjoys, there are bound to be some opportunities to make friends along the way. Begin by helping children identify what they find interesting or fun.

When kids are engaged in groups or activities that are exciting or interesting to them, this reduces the pressure to meet and talk with other people. Not only are they doing something they enjoy, they are surrounded by other people who feel the same way they do. And, many times, the conversations can be about what they are doing or experiencing.

You also should encourage your kids to look for friendships with people that are different than them. There is so much that kids can learn from people that they might not expect to have as much in common with.

If your child is struggling to come up with ideas on what they like and dislike, you can offer some suggestions to see if anything sounds appealing. You might try:

  • Individual sports like tennis, martial arts, swimming, or a running club
  • Noncompetitive activities including music and art lessons, a robotics class, or a chess club
  • Other clubs, including scouting organizations, 4-H, and church youth groups
  • Story time or book clubs at your library or bookstore
  • The park, pool, playground, trampoline park, or other general play areas
  • Volunteer opportunities like a local food pantry or community clean up program where they work alongside other kids
  • Youth sports and classes including team sports like soccer, baseball, basketball, and volleyball

If you're concerned your child will be stressed about meeting new people, bring an ice-breaker—such as a toy, pet, or snacks—to help draw other kids to your child. This is especially helpful if your child is not naturally outgoing.

Making Friends After a Pandemic

Helping your child find and make friends after living through the COVID-19 pandemic can seem overwhelming, but with a little creativity, you can make it happen. While many aspects of life are opening up again, some restrictions may still be in place.

Rules will vary based on your location and what is happening with the COVID-19 case counts and vaccination rates in your area. However, there are many ways kids can now safely gather. To help kids stay connected while following pandemic protocols, try these virtual and in-person options:

  • Join school-sponsored activities and study groups to help them reconnect with their classmates. Outdoor activities like soccer and baseball also provide a natural, safe way for your kids to meet new friends who share their interests.
  • Play at your school playground. This is a natural place for elementary school kids to interact and form friendships.
  • Play online games together. Whether your child uses a gaming console or arranges a game through a Zoom call, playing games together online allows kids to communicate, collaborate, and problem-solve. These gaming friendships provide a natural jumping off place for meeting in person as well.
  • Reach out to kids your children already know. Make plans to meet up to ride bikes or scooters or do some arts and crafts. Movie nights, scavenger hunts, book clubs, and hikes are other fun options. Having a specific activity to do can help the kids have something to talk about as they ease back into their friendship.
  • Schedule time together that meets your community's health safety guidelines. Kids older than two who aren't yet vaccinated should wear a mask indoors and follow social distancing guidelines.

Reassure your child that it's normal to feel a bit awkward when they start socializing again. Let them know that they aren't alone in this and that many other kids are also looking to make new friends or reconnect with old ones.

If your child feels nervous about meeting others in person, let them know that they can wear a mask as long as they want to. Suggesting an outdoor activity with an established friend for your child's first outing may also help calm their nerves.

When Making Friends Is Hard

If your child continues to struggle with making friends, try observing what happens when your child interacts with other kids. Is your child too bossy, clingy, aggressive, aloof, touchy, or simply too shy to build friendships?

Does your child seem to annoy the other kids? As hard as it might be to acknowledge this fact, you can help your child identify why someone might be bothered and how to try different ways of interacting the next time they are together. Of course, be sure not to shame your child or make them feel bad for who they are. Just explain that they may want to find other ways to connect with the friend.

One way to accomplish this is by role-playing a play date. Pretend you're a friend who has come over to play with your child. Practicing how to interact with different friends can help your child learn more appropriate ways to act around other children.

You don't want your child to become a people-pleaser just to have friends. They still need to be authentic about who they are.

Kids who continue to have problems making friends could have a medical condition affecting their social relationships. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, anxiety, and selective mutism (which occurs when children don't talk to people outside their immediate family) can all contribute to difficulty socializing.

Having trouble with friendships also can be a sign of depression, a learning disability, stress, or even bullying. Not being able to make and keep friends can be an important clue that your child needs help from a medical professional.

Your pediatrician, a child psychologist, or a counselor can be good resources when your child continues to have problems making friends. You can also bring up this topic at yearly well-child checkups.

Other Considerations

Be realistic about your expectations for your child's friendships. If your child is shy and quiet, then being happy with just one or two good friends may be completely normal for them. They may not want or need a whole group of friends.

Children with disabilities may feel intimidated by other children or they may feel uncomfortable reaching out to them. If this is the case in your family, help your child meet new people and make friends by setting small goals. For instance, ask them to say hello to at least one new person each day. Many times, this small step is enough to start a conversation with another student.

Gifted children often have problems making friends too, and may prefer to be around adults instead of kids their own age. These preferences can be a sign that your child is having problems making friends. Work with your child to help them connect with like-minded peers. Depending on your child's interests, clubs revolving around books, math, science, chess, and robotics might be good options.

Making friends during the 2021-2022 school year may be a bit more challenging with the pandemic still limiting some in-person activities, especially among kids who can't yet be vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has prioritized in-person learning for the upcoming school year, however, so the majority of children can once again look forward to daily face-to-face interactions with their peers.

Avoid pushing shy children to make friends or force them into social situations if it causes too much anxiety or if they aren't ready. Be patient and let your child's readiness and interest level serve as a guide.

A Word From Verywell

Childhood friendships are full of ups and downs and ins and outs. So, if your child is going through a friendship slump, try not to be too worried. Remember, making friends and being a good friend are skills that need to be learned. So, focus on helping your children build and practice their friendship skills. Eventually, everything will fall into place.

Also, be sure to keep the lines of communication open. Talking about how to be a good friend is just as important as learning how to make friends. These types of conversations will help your children learn to identify who is a good friend and who might not have their best interest at heart. Having this skill can end up saving them a lot of heartache in the end—and help them find the right friends for them.

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Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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