Whether you’re 3 or 13 (or even 53!), making friends takes some effort. It’s no wonder, then, that big new events, like the start of school, or a global pandemic, can trigger anxiety in children.
Kids worried about making new friends (especially if they’re starting the school year online) and might be nervous about whether or not old friends are still good buddies.
Parents in turn can worry about how to help kids make friends. If your child is struggling to find friends, there are a few gentle tips that may help.
The golden rule
Sounds simple, but putting a smile on your face will let others know that you’re approachable, explains Lori Warner, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and director of the Ted Lindsay Foundation HOPE Center in Southfield, affiliated with Beaumont Children’s.
“It sounds like something from a Hallmark card, but I think the best way to make a friend is to be a friend,” says Warner, who is a mom of two. A few years back, she gave her son this counsel before he started kindergarten.
“He felt a little nervous going in to school, but then he ended up being a social butterfly – all the kids wanted to play with him.” Warner credits her son’s cheerful attitude and open friendliness with his popularity among his fellow kindergartners.
Play time is the ideal chance for children to interact and get to know each other. Warner suggests that you let your child know that she should ask to play with other kids – and not just jump in. “Usually, most kids will say ‘sure,'” says Warner.
Your child can also come up with something to play on her own and then invite other children to join in. Often a child will just ask, “Do you want to play with me?”
Warner says that it’s easier if kids are a little bit more specific. “Instead of asking, ‘Do you want to play?’ try ‘Do you want to play dinosaurs with me?'” By being more specific, your child can make playtime go more smoothly; instead of wondering – or disagreeing – over what to play, the children can get right into their imaginations.
You can help your child along by providing opportunities to meet other children. If your child’s school is within walking distance, stay at the school after the bell rings and let your child spend time at the playground, go to library children’s story times.
Or get your child involved in after-school sports, so he has a chance to interact with a variety of kids in different situations. “Chances are your child will find a friend who shares his or her interests,” says Warner.
During the pandemic, while people are sticking a little closer to home and being more strict about who they are seeing, it’ll be a bit tougher to schedule some times for your child to see classmates or peers.
If you’re running into issues with in-person options, consider virtual play date options or maybe reach out to other parents about starting a pandemic pod.
Disagreements will happen
And what if your son or daughter gets into a spat with his new buddy while they’re at the park or during a play date? “It’s OK for children to have conflicts,” says Warner, who recalls her son getting into a lengthy argument with his friend during a get-together.
“My first reaction was to step in, but it’s better to give the children some time to see if they can resolve it on their own.”
If your child is constantly getting into disagreements with a certain friend in particular, you should point out to her that she might need to make new friends. For the most part, however, you should expect at least a little friction every once in awhile, even between friends.
“I still remember some of the advice that my parents gave me when I was nervous about making friends when I started middle school,” Warner recalls. “They told me to ‘smile at other people, tell them my name and, if they seemed interested in talking, to follow up with them and then to follow their cues. If they didn’t seem to want to be friends, don’t take it personally.'”
Her parents pointed out that sometimes when people are shy or insecure, they might rebuff your efforts at friendship. When it comes to how to help kids make friends, it’s key to explain the importance of patience.
“Sometimes nervousness can seem like unfriendliness when it’s not,” she says. “They should also remember that they’re probably not going to make a best buddy the first day.” In other words, friendship takes time.
This article was originally published in September 2012 and is updated regularly.