How to help your child make friends

By Samantha Luiz
11 March 2015

Some kids find it a little tougher to connect with their peers. Luckily, there are a few non-invasive ways parents can guide them.

Making friends is an important part of a child's development.

Through companionship, kids learn critical life skills such as sharing and compromising. They also learn critical cognitive skills such as working through misunderstandings with other people. Friends also provide the moral support that one needs at least once in their lifetime. With that said, some kids find it easy to make friends while others need a little nudge.

This is perfectly explained by writer David Dobbs who called this phenomenon the 'orchid hypothesis'. David likens some children to dandelions, plants that are able to thrive in just about any environment, while other kids are more like orchids. This distinction is important because the orchid is more fragile than the dandelion, but given the right environment, it can "produce a rare and extraordinary blossom."

The good news is that as parents, you can play an essential role in supporting your child who struggles to make friends.

Kerry Acheson, a Cape Town psychologist suggests that parents should try arranging play dates. Here, the kid's teachers can be helpful in identifying the appropriate peers for this.

"For kids that struggle with socialising, parents can help to make it more manageable by keeping the duration short, supervising as needed, and starting with a structured activity such as visiting the aquarium or baking,” she advises.

She adds that it is important to "start small, and help the child to have a positive, successful experience, and build from there." By doing this, parents encourage growth in confidence and motivation.

The psychologist also points out that it’s important the child understands the value of friendship.

"You can help your child to develop skills by fostering empathy in your child. You can ask them how they would feel if the situation was reversed. What do they think being a friend means and doesn't mean?"

Kerry suggests helping kids brainstorm effective strategies for handling such difficult cases, thus involving them in the process. It is also imperative to acknowledge the efforts being made by the child.

"Praise the efforts and gains that the child is making in this area. It may be appropriate to use a positive reinforcement programme to implement goals and encourage pro-social behaviours."

Here are some other tips to help your child make friends:

  1. Be a positive role model. Teach your child the value of friendship through your own relationships.
  2. Understand your child's friendship style. The way you make friends might be different to how your child will make friends and parents need to be aware of this. That said, if group interactions aren't working out for your child, try a different approach such as one to one interactions.
  3. Open your house to play dates. The right environment is important if your child is to build enough confidence and self-esteem to build and maintain friendships.
  4. Involve them, don't force them. If children are to make lasting friendships, it is important that they willingly participate in the process. Go according to their pace and remember to acknowledge their progress. Eventually even the orchid comes to full bloom.

Additional sources: childmind.org, thepowerofintroverts.com

More parenting advice:

What type of learner is your child? Here’s how to help them study more effectively

Your best IS enough: How to teach your child that wining isn't everything

What to do if you don’t understand your child’s homework

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