Many parents would like to help their child make and keep friends and yet are at a loss at what to do to help. Here are a few tips on what you can do that can help your child learn how to be a good friend and deal with friendship problems. Every child has difficulties with friends sometimes, but some children are more inclined to have friendship difficulties. It may be that they are sensitive, impulsive, intense, lack concentration or possibly that they have special needs or are on the autistic spectrum. For these children it is vital to help them with this skill, or friendships will be a life-long problem.

1. Give your child plenty of opportunities to mix with other children

Such as after school clubs, car sharing, school trips and holidays, family get-togethers, scouts, sports and especially doing any activities which encourage their talents.

2. When you spend time with your child ‘model’ good social skills

Such as talking respectfully, losing gracefully and dealing with frustrations. It helps if you talk aloud when doing this and say what you are doing. Such as ‘I tried so hard, but you won that time, so even though I’m feeling disappointed, I’m going to congratulate you…Well done!’ or ‘I really wanted to play cards, but I need to cooperate when we play together, so I’m happy to go along with playing football.’ This may seem a bit artificial, but it really helps children notice the skills you model, particularly dealing with frustrations.

3. When you play with your child notice all the things they do that are friendly

Notice when they have good ideas for play, share, take turns, wait, ask rather than demand, cooperate, accept someone else’s ideas, are kind or helpful, are patient, compliment others, express enjoyment,  are empathetic or solve a problem. Each time they display a friendly behaviour tell them that you noticed it. Be particularly observant when they show consideration of someone else’s feelings or point of view.

4. Have a discussion with your child about ‘What makes a good friend?’

Get them to look closely at the behaviours of children they like. You could make it a little project and make a poster that they can decorate with stickers and pop inside their wardrobe, or just make a list in a notebook. Talk about the qualities frequently and ask them to notice when they see them. Find opportunities in everyday conversation about friendships –it could be a program you watch, what your own friends did that you liked or noticing how other children behave when you are out and about.

5. Teach your child how to say nice things to other children.

Particularly talk about how to start up a conversation,  or give a compliment when another child is doing well in a game. Help them to smile –it is a really important skill. And to say when they are having fun.

6. Discuss social skills

Ask your child what they would do when they want to start a conversation with another child, join a group of children, deal with a hurtful comment or go along with another child’s suggestion for play. You could come up with a whole list of possible ideas and work out the consequences of trying each one. Or you could do some role play and ask your child if they want you to be themselves or the other child, or you could get your child to think about a child who they like and is popular and think ‘What would they do?

7. Talk about how they can handle their emotions

Talk to your child about how they handle things when they feel frustrated or angry with their friends. Talk about self-regulation and ask them what they can do when they feel annoyed. This skill is vital if children are to keep their friends. Get your child to practice calming themselves down at home. When they are feeling irritated they can use positive self-talk such as ‘I can stay calm’, ‘I can handle this’, ‘Talk, don’t hit’ or ‘Stop – What’s the best thing to do here?’  Talk about how it can damage a friendship if they say hurtful comments out loud. Chat with them about useful things they can say. Such as ‘I don’t like it when you call me that, please stop’ or  ‘I need a bit of space, so you carry on and I’m going to find something else to do for a while’. It is also very important to teach a child how to act calm and indifferent when they are being teased or bullied.

8. Invite children round to your house to play.

Ask your child who they would like to invite and plan some fun activities for when they come round. If your child struggles with making and keeping friends keep the visits short and fun, and invite your child to allow their friend to choose  from what activities are on offer. Stay close and comment when the children do things which show the qualities of being a good friend. ‘That was nice, you are being really helpful to your friend’ or ‘well done for waiting, you are being very patient and waiting your turn’. When they go to a friend’s house talk in advance about what skills they will try to use when they are there.

9. Listen to your child when they fall out with friends and let them decide what to do

If your child squabbles with one of their friends encourage them to talk about what happened. Be warm and empathise with how tough it can be when we argue with friends. Try not to offer suggestions about what to do, but when you have listened to their story ask what they would like to do. If it helps do a bit of problem solving with them and let them come up with a few suggestions about how they could handle it. Afterwards think about the consequences of each of their suggestions and ask which solution they would like to try.

10. Keep an eye on the friendships your child makes.

Sometimes you will not particularly like one of their friends, but it is important to respect your child’s choice of friends. However, as parents, you can influence which children you invite to your home and ask children round that you feel are good for your child. Also you can talk about ‘so-called friends’ who lower your child’s confidence. Help your child recognise how they feel when they are playing with certain children and encourage them to spend time with children who make them feel good.

Things parents do wrong!

child behavioural expert
The author:

Elizabeth O’Shea is a parenting specialist child behaviour expert and one of the leading parenting experts in the UK.

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