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Is your child fitting in to her school class? Does she have friends to play with at recess? Does she have friends who want to eat lunch with her? Most children do but some children don’t.
Friends are not just nice-to-have. They are essential to children’s success in school and in later life. Research has shown that children who are rejected or ignored in preschool continue to be rejected or ignored in first grade, third grade, and middle school. The pattern of no-friends doesn’t go away on its own. In addition, those children who have no friends at school are less happy at school, do less well in school, and develop patterns of aggression or withdrawal that become lifelong.
Every parent wants their child to have friends to play with. What can you do if your child has trouble making friends? Here are some ideas.
- Make sure your child has friendship opportunities. To have friends, kids have to be around kids who are good candidates for friendship. So get your preschooler enrolled in a child-centered child care center or preschool and make certain that your school-age child has chances to play with kids outside of school. Remember that “play” is not the same as organized sports or lessons. Play is interacting with another child without any adult plan for what will happen. So set up play dates. Take time to get your child out into kid society.
- Show your child how to play. Small children may not know how to sit down next to someone in the sandbox and engage that child in mutual play. Even older kids may feel too shy or uncertain and need to know how to strike up a conversation with another child on the playground or in the neighborhood. So show her how. Get into the sandbox yourself and help your child play with another kid. Introduce yourself and your child to a kid on the playground and help the two of them get involved in a shared activity.
- Help your child be a responsive playmate. Some kids are better at this than others: they can pick up play cues and adapt to another child’s thinking almost effortlessly. Other children, especially those with ADHD or autism, may have difficulty understanding another child’s point-of-view. Studies show that children who are out of control, self-absorbed or overly-aggressive are rejected as playmates. If your child has trouble in social situations, he needs more opportunities to play, not fewer, and more guidance in how to do it. You may need to teach your child how to be a friend. Make this a priority.
- Help your child say goodbye. When play is over, demonstrate how to end the play but saying, “Thanks for playing with us. We hope to play with you again sometime.” Easy to do and polite and it cements for your child the idea that, yes, she did play with somebody and it was fun. The shy and uncertain child may have felt uncomfortable during at least some of the play, so reminding her that this was fun leaves the good final impression.
- Avoid over-managing friendship. Kids don’t become friends because adults say they should. They become friends because they have fun together. So trying to insist that another child be friends with your child or leaning too hard on a particular child to be your kid’s go-to companion is not likely to help your child in the long run. No one, your child included, should feel forced into friendship or forced to have play dates with someone she doesn’t like.
Finally, if you live in a remote area or there are no conducive children living nearby, you may be comforted by the fact that solitary children are not necessarily lonely. Many isolated kids use their imaginations to create a rich inner life or find affinity with pets. Some children with no friends are quite comfortable playing by themselves. The key thing is to notice if your child is really content or if he has simply resigned himself to a friendless fate. If your child is not unhappy, then don’t you be unhappy either.
Friends are good but popularity is not so important. It isn’t the number of friends that matters but the connection to even one person the same age or with the same interests. What’s important is your child’s happiness. Help your child be happy with her friends.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at www.patricianananderson.com.