How Kids Make and Keep Friends

Shot of two happy schoolgirls chatting in the hallway outside their classroom

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Having a best friend, playing with other children, and going to birthday parties are routine activities for most kids. In fact, 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. Not only do kids learn how to communicate with others, but healthy friendships can be instrumental in helping them learn to control their emotions. However, some children struggle socially and have trouble making and keeping friends.

If your child doesn't appear to have friends or is never invited to play with other children, this can be distressing for both you and your child. But there are ways to 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 also provide a protective barrier against bullying.

There is some research that indicates that having quality friendships may help deter bullies and in cases where bulling does occur, may make it easier for kids to cope. Likewise, healthy friendships also teach important life skills like learning 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. In these situations, peer pressure becomes a positive thing especially if they encourage one another to build interest in things like altruism, 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 usually 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 your child's teachers to see how they interact with other kids at school. You also should ask your child about their friendships to get a better idea of how well they're making friends, too.

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.

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. With a little practice and patience, your child will soon have a buddy or two they can spend time with.

Begin by discovering how your child is feeling. You may find that the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 is causing your child to feel alone and isolated. Or, you may find that being at home is much more peaceful than dealing with the stresses that school brings.

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. Here are some other things you can work on.

Build Conversation Skills

From taking turns when 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 on starting 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 on how people have conversations. Point out things like body language, tone of voice, and pauses in the conversation—all important cues when talking with others.

Work on Social Skills

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 empathize with others.

Showing compassion and concern for other people in a healthy way can open the door to friendship. This skill is especially important during a 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 and might need 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 and meet a potential new friend.

Look for Opportunities

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

Consequently, look for opportunities to get your child involved in activities outside the house. Of course, be sensitive to your child's energy level as well as their personality type. You don't want to over schedule 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, this reduces the pressure to meet and talk with other people.

Not only are they doing something they enjoy, but 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 not like them.

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 interesting. Here are some examples of places where your child may make friends.

  • Youth sports and classes including team sports like soccer, baseball, and volleyball
  • 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
  • Story time at your library or bookstore as well as book clubs for children or teens
  • Other kids' clubs including scouting organizations, 4-H, and church youth groups
  • The park, pool, playground, trampoline park, or other general play area
  • Volunteer opportunities like a local food pantry or community clean up program where they work alongside other kids

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 During a Pandemic

Helping your child find and make friends in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic can seem overwhelming, but with a little creativity, you can make it happen. Here are some ideas on ways to make friends.

  • Find a pen pal and write letters to one another. Whether the pen pal is a distant cousin, an acquaintance from school, or someone from another country, writing letters is a fun way to build a friendship.
  • Create online hangouts with kids your children already know. Parents have organized movie nights, virtual sleepovers, scavenger hunts, book clubs, and more.
  • Join online study groups for school, especially if your child's school is engaging in virtual schooling or a combination of online schooling and in-person schooling.
  • Schedule time together that meets your community's guidelines for social distancing. Encourage kids older than age two to wear a mask for added protection and remind them about maintaining a social distance.
  • Play online games together. Whether your child uses a gaming console or arranges a game through a Zoom call, playing games together online still allows kids to communicate, collaborate, and problem-solve.

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, touchy, or simply too shy to build a friendship with the child?

Does your child seem to annoy the other kids? As hard as this 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 and you pretend you're a friend who has come over to play with your child. Practicing how to interact with different friends can be a helpful way to teach your child more appropriate ways to act around other children. Be careful not to take it too far though.

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. These medical conditions can include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, anxiety, and selective mutism, which occurs when children don't talk to people outside their immediate family.

In addition to these medical conditions, having trouble with friendships also can be a sign of depression, a learning disability, stress, or even bullying. In fact, 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 for help when your child continues to have problems making friends. Discussing friendships is also a good topic for your child's yearly well-child checkups with your pediatrician.

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.

Meanwhile, 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 who are their own age. These preferences can be a sign that your child is having problems making friends.

Work with your child to find ways of connecting with like-minded peers. Depending on your child's interests, clubs revolving around books, math, science, and robotics might be good options.

Clearly, making friends during the 2020–2021 school year will be a bit more challenging with the pandemic limiting in-person activities. But social development is still important.

Try to incorporate friendship-making opportunities into your everyday life if you can. Even texting a friend to see how they are doing goes a long way.

In general, kids usually have friends that are about the same age as they are. But in some situations kids prefer to be around children who are older or younger than they are. For example, children with ADHD often end up making friends with much younger kids because of their interests and energy levels.

Also, don't push 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.

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Article Sources
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