Friendships are one of the primary social anchors your child will have, and having strong social competency skills will help your child navigate the choppy waters of childhood friendships and way beyond.
And it all starts much earlier than you think...
“When it comes to friendships, the initial attachments the child forms as a baby are very important,” says clinical psychologist Vanessa Hemp from Johannesburg.
“The first three years of life build the capacity to connect and attach to others. A securely attached child will have the capacity to form secure relationships and get pleasure from those relationships,” she explains.
The securely attached child has a caregiver who is tuned in to them and able to give them what they need by responding to their primary needs including touch, holding and physical comfort – and they learn to trust that relationship.
“Problems start right there when they don’t have that secure attachment,” says Vanessa.
The reasons can vary, she says, explaining that it is sometimes neglect, while at other times circumstances such as a child in an incubator, hospitalisation or a sick parent, that get in the way of secure attachments being formed.
“All relationships stem from that primary relationship. A secure attachment base offers a good experience of a loving and caring relationship,” she says.
After that, though, the child’s personality comes into play. Some children are just naturally more shy and solitary by nature.
“A child doesn’t have to be an extrovert. You must have those playdates, but accept that’s who they are and never give them the message that their personality is not okay,” cautions Vanessa.
Why does it matter?
It’s probably easy to trivialise the importance of your child’s ability to make friends, but to do so could have long-term repercussions.
Here’s a scary fact:
According to a three-year study by Concordia University, Florida Atlantic University and the University of Vermont, friendless kids showed increasing levels of sadness and higher levels of depressive feelings.
The upside of that is that friendship is shown to promote resilience and protect at-risk kids from internalising feelings of depression and anxiety – and having just one friend can be protective.
You can learn how to make friends
Some children will be happily blessed with a natural ability to make friends wherever they go.
Others, particularly shy kids, those who haven’t had a lot of social experiences, and children who haven’t learnt those crucial friendship-making skills, will find it harder going.
It might sound ridiculous to teach your child friendship skills, but there are simple steps to help them be that kid on the playground who always makes friends easily.
Internationally recognised parenting expert Dr Michele Borba advises that just like all other skills, these are learned and refined through trial and error – and the more opportunities your child has to test those skills, the more chance there is that they will develop social competence.
Many studies have shown that social skills are easily taught.
Dr Borba recommends steps outlined by child development researchers Sherri Oden and Steven Asher: teach one skill at a time, and practise it over and over until they can use it on their own before you move onto another skill.
What do I teach?
There is any number of social skills children use to make friends. If your child is reporting that they can’t make friends, or that other kids “don’t like me”, the trick is to find out what is causing the difficulty by observing them around other kids.
Being fully present while you’re at a playdate (as opposed to being engaged with the other parent) is crucial, advises Vanessa.
Dr Borba comments that noticing how your child interacts with their peers will give you some key insights into where their social skills need work.
Is your child perhaps too bossy or aggressive?
Do they understand how to take turns?
Are they hanging back too much?
Whatever the challenge, find some private time to model a new skill for your child – and never offer suggestions in front of other children.
It’s important to show your child rather than tell them, says Dr Borba – and they might find it easier to practise with kids they don’t know, so hit the local park for some practice.
Once they’ve interacted with other kids, review how it went – and remember to praise them for what they did right rather than focusing on what they didn’t do.
Find the right place and time
For a child with strong social competency, a busy playground, or the hustle and bustle of a party don’t pose particular challenges. Still, for a more introverted or shy child, or one who is easily overstimulated, it can feel overwhelming.
Ask yourself how you can make it pleasant for your child.
Bear in mind also that children between the ages of one to two are just not developmentally ready to share – they’re too naturally egocentric, and it’s quite normal not to share.
For any child under the age of three, parallel play alongside another is the norm, but children can have fun and benefit from those playdates and social experiences regardless.
“A playdate really shouldn’t be longer than one-and-a-half to two hours long, and for younger children, even one hour is enough,” says Vanessa.
“Rather leave while the child is still having fun, isn’t tired, hungry or sleepy so that the overall experience remains a positive and constructive one,” she advises. There’s a balance between how much a parent should be involved,” says Vanessa.
“If there is snatching or a sharing issue, you need to help mediate that, but then step back a bit and let them interact,” she says.
If your child has problems sharing, a playdate in their environment might cause stress as they struggle with feelings of possessiveness.
Try a playdate in a neutral environment: a local park or playground, for example.
Always leave early rather than risk a negative experience, Vanessa advises. “Tune into your child and give them a space that is safe and comfortable for them,” she recommends.
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