Helping Your Child Make Friends

Friendship means different things at different ages. Most 2-year-olds are too young to understand the concept of friendship and will play with any child they come across without giving it much thought, but as your child grows older, it will become more aware of the people around it and will eventually begin to form preferences for certain playmates.

Forming friendships is an important developmental step, as childhood isolation - whether self-imposed or created by parental inattention - can lead to emotional problems both in the present and the future. You can help your child make friends by doing the following:

Equip your child with the proper social tools.

Coach your child on proper social interaction skills by playing with it and teaching it about turn-taking and sharing. You should also give it plenty of opportunities to interact with other children, whether they are those of friends, relatives or neighbors, so that it can put its skills to practice and learn from its mistakes under your gentle guidance. 

One tactic to get things going is giving your little one words or phrases that it can use when approaching other kids, such as "Do you want to play?" or "Do you want to see my toy?". After each playtime, set aside a few moments for you and your child to sit and talk about the experience. Make sure that you are taking small and gentle steps and never push your child to be more social, as that could be counterproductive.

Keep playdates small and short.

Starting small will help your child ease into the social arena instead of leaving it feeling overwhelmed. Invite one or two children to your home, preferably ones that your preschooler is already familiar with and are close to its age. Have them spend no more than an hour or two together, as long playdates can be overstimulating and tiring for young children.

Plan ahead.

Make sure the playdates incorporate games and activities that your child likes and is good at, as this will make it feel more comfortable and confident. You can maximize positive interaction by providing plenty of materials so that the children needn't share at first.

Get involved.

Children meeting for the first and second time will need a bit of help to get into the mood, so help them get used to each other by taking part of the games as well. Keep yourself available lest they run into conflicts, stop playing, or need a change of activity. You will also need to supervise art projects, hide-and-seek games, and games that involve water splashing. The key to good guidance is not to dominate the playdate; just break the ice and let the children do the rest.

Set a schedule.

Getting your child used to playing with others is key to nurturing its social development. Arrange regular playdates with the same children and if things progress positively you can start introducing trips to the park, playground or one of the other children's homes. Once your child begins to get along exceptionally well with its chosen playmates, try leaving it to play at its friends' homes first for a short period of time and gradually extend the period.

Get help

if you sense a real problem. Don't worry if your child seems too shy to make friends, as this is not unusual in early childhood. If, however, your child rarely makes or maintains eye contact, is unusually withdrawn and introverted, throws tantrums or cries whenever other children are around, or seems too scared to go to preschool or park, you should talk to your pediatrician.