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How to Help Your Child Make Friends from Infancy to Elementary School

Tips for encouraging friendships

Children’s friendships reflect not only their age and developmental level, but their individual temperaments and personalities. Children’s social needs might vary from those of their parents. Some children are very social and want lots of friends, while others are happier with a few close friends. Both are okay. Here are some tips for parents on how to help your child make friends.

Helping Infants and Toddlers Make Friends

Young infants are learning about the world through their senses. They enjoy tactile experiences, like exploring water or sand. They stack toys to watch them fall, pound objects together to make noise, and open cupboard doors to find out what’s inside. At this age, children don’t have the language or social-emotional skills to engage in complex play with other children, but they are learning about human relationships. Even very young infants can learn caring behaviors and have been observed responding to another infant’s distress. In group care settings, in particular, infants and toddlers often form bonds; they might play side-by-side (known as parallel play), rather than together. 
  • Ensure that interactions, including those with caregivers, are gentle and responsive. When infants’ needs are met quickly, they learn to trust the world and they want to engage with it. 
  • Model basic social skills, such as sharing or saying hello. Don’t expect infants and toddlers to follow suit necessarily, but know that they are learning from your example.

Encouraging Preschool Friendships

As two-year-olds and young preschoolers develop language, their play becomes more involved and interactive. Friendships often spring up over a shared interest, such as building a ramp together with blocks (cooperative play), or scrambling over a climbing structure. 

  • Schedule playdates with other parents, but keep them brief – an hour or two is plenty. Have a few playdate activities in mind ahead of time, such as playing with play dough or going for a nature walk. 
  • Put away any toys that will be difficult for your child to share or offer duplicates. Keep in mind that sharing is hard at this age; conflicts are common, but generally short-lived.
  • As best as you can, ensure that children aren’t hungry or tired.
  • Support the play and step in to help solve problems. Give your child clear ideas about what to say and do. For example, “You both want the toy, but Ainsley has it right now. You can wait for a turn or we can find another toy. What would you like to do?”

Supporting Older Preschoolers with Friendship

Around the age of four or five, children’s play becomes more complex. They enjoy pretend play (playing house or super heroes), board games, and active games. Some children like rough-and-tumble games or tests of strength. Other children enjoy doing crafts together. Children are becoming more social at this age and often prefer to play with other children of the same gender. They might also prefer certain personality types over others. 

  • This can be the age when cliques and bullying behavior begin to emerge. Help your child understand that she doesn’t have to be best friends with everyone, but she can be kind and friendly to everyone. In a group setting, teach your child to try to be aware of others who might feel left out. 
  • Continue to help your child develop social skills. Teach him how to say hello, how to share, and how to take turns. Some children seem to automatically master these skills; others need more direct teaching. 
  • Plan some structured activities and invite a few children/families over. Do some crafts, watch a movie, start a book club, or go for a hike. 
  • Make your house “child-friendly.” Keep a supply of snacks, as well as fun activities. Be okay with some mess. Having your child’s friends in your home allows you to see how she interacts with others and offer gentle support when necessary.

Guiding Friendships in Older Elementary-Age Children 

At this age, children still form friendships around activities and common interests. Active playground games, such as, “hide and go seek,” are nice for breaking the ice because they’re fun and engaging, yet non-intimidating. Encourage your child’s friendships at school. Get to know the other families and plan get-togethers. Team sports and after-school clubs are another place for children to make friends.

  • One-on-one get-togethers generally work better than large groups, especially for more introverted children. Avoid situations with three children unless they’re all very good friends. Otherwise, one child almost inevitably gets left out. 
  • Children don’t always intuitively know how to make friendships. Encourage your child to look around at school for other children who might be new, alone, or needing a friend. Tell your child to ask questions to get a conversation going. 
  • Continue to make your child’s friends welcome in your home.

You can encourage friendships from infancy up through elementary school. Help your child achieve future success with these tips for developing social skills.

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