How to Help Your Child Make Friends

Written by: Katya on 24/07/17

One challenge to helping your child build relationships is knowing when to step in – and when to stand back and watch. There are delicate steps to the process of building friendships! Children just take it for granted that others will want to be friends with them. But whether or not they are able to retain friends will depend largely on how much we coach them on being a good friend.

Watching toddlers can be a fascinating exercise in observing human interaction. The dynamic changes so much between the ages of 18 months and 5 years old! The rapid changes in their psychological development create so many little transitions in how they want to interact with others and how they want to be treated. It can be hard to keep up with them!

For the most part, very young toddlers seem more inclined to interact with the adult in the room than other children. Even indirect interactions are often made through the adults. While it may be tempting to try and make them play something together, a good tip for parenting toddlers is to go with the flow. Use their dependence on you to your advantage as a way to model cooperative play.

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In the early stages, children ages 2 and under love being together in the same room, even if they are not necessarily playing together. They are generally just not socially coordinated enough for it yet. Everything is fine, as long as no one is trying to impede them in whatever games they are playing – a tough feat when more than one toddler is involved! To the 2-year old, the important part of the friendship experience is still getting to do whatever he wants. As long as that is the case, the child has no problem “making friends.” But if someone else wants what he has or interrupts his play, then it’s a different story.

If it seems like your child is doing fine sharing and playing something together with his friend, that’s great! But especially for toddlers who are shy, at this stage, it is not a bad sign if they want to play individually instead of playing together. Don’t feel like you need to force anything. Even though children of this age could very easily interact together, they often choose not to do so – and that’s ok.

A few months down the road, however, an adjustment to your parenting strategies will become necessary as involvement in each other’s games starts becoming important. This change occurs not so much because of a new focus on cooperative play. It is more of an effort on your child’s part to make his own way of playing more interesting. More players in his game, as it were. If an argument occurs, it’s not because he is ruining someone else’s game or being bossy to others on purpose… he’s just literally not yet aware that other people are not in existence for his own amusement.

Your child may incessantly give orders on how to play, or demand to be included in what someone else is doing, to the chagrin of his friend (think of a building project made of blocks getting bumped and falling down). This self-centeredness is not a sign that your child is a budding bully. It’s a natural part of a toddler’s perception of the world. A toddler has only recently become cognitive of himself. With that being the extent of his awareness, others having a say in what he does and how he plays is incomprehensible to a toddler’s mind.

As you consider your child’s age and development, keep this in mind as a tip for parenting your toddler: have age-appropriate expectations, and never punish them for age-appropriate behavior. 2-year-olds don’t generally share playthings of their own volition. They need to learn, of course, and that’s why we are here. But at this stage of his development, don’t be surprised or exasperated if you have to remind your child every single time that he needs to share, helping him to do so when necessary. If your child pushes his friend to retrieve a toy that was taken away, handle it as you would with a 2-year-old, not as you would with a 4-year-old who should know better. Explain that, “We don’t push others,” coach him to make an apology and do something objective like set a timer to help promote taking turns.

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If your child takes something away from others, demonstrate the desired reaction: coach him to return it to his friend, explaining that someone else had it first (expecting tears and objections, naturally). The goal is that your child learns to be a good friend. If you have to remove him from the situation until he is calm again or distract him with something not currently being used for play, go for it. The goal is a happy play experience in the same vicinity at this point, with constructive occurrences of your child not getting their way and learning to get over it. Time-outs and other consequences are not going to do much for a 2-year-old because they lack the capacity to connect the consequence with their action, so don’t try to enforce sharing with consequences so much as encourage awareness of others and a willingness to look for alternatives when they can’t have their way. Helping your child be a good friend will be the starting point for helping your child be able to make their own friends.
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As a parent, your goal is that your child learns to be a good friend. Click To Tweet

So as a mother, in each of these different stages, how do you handle the budding friendships (or lack thereof) that your toddler is experiencing?

A major part of mother’s role in all of this is understanding where your child is in the development process. Generally, as children reach the age of 4 and 5, it becomes easier for them to engage with friends while understanding that others may or may not want to play the way they do. It’s still not a guarantee that all of their interactions will be smooth – the patience of a pre-schooler is still pretty short-lived, after all – but there is a higher likelihood that, with coaching, your child can play the way they want to while allowing others to do the same.

A 4-year-old most certainly has the ability to understand concepts such as the feelings of others, sharing, group play, etc. Helping your pre-schooler have happy friendships will involve fostering a focus on synergy in their play with others. While that may sound like a strange word to apply to tips for parenting preschoolers, planting the idea this early will set your child up for long-term success when it comes to their relationships with others. The idea of compromise is one that, with guidance, a 4-year-old can and should be expected to employ at least some of the time.

In your efforts to help your kids make and keep friends, take opportunities to introduce these cooperation-focused words: compromise and synergy. I love defining grown-up words in terms my kids can understand – they respond well to it because helps them to know what I expect. Give them a concrete word and helping them understand what it means. This allows you as a parent to use it as a tool for helping them create positive interactions with others. Compromise and synergy are ideas that your kids can learn to incorporate into their interactions with others by being focused on taking the high road and making a priority out of helping others feel special and important, even when faced with confrontation. It’s one of the best parenting tips for raising children to be conscientious and intentional about their relationships.

If your child has these ideas growing in his fertile mind as he begins making friends with other pre-schoolers, he may get frustrated that other kids are not as considerate. But, allowing him to experience this difference is part of the process of helping him choose friends wisely as he becomes old enough to make more of his own decisions. You can help him see this distinction between how fun play time is when everyone is cooperating rather than when one person has to have his own way. It allows him an opportunity to set a good example, which – especially for older children – can be very empowering. The ideas of influence and example will become very important as your child enters the years of primary school and beyond, so planting the ideas in his mind now as he first begins making friends will be very beneficial to his relationships in the long run.

What other tips are important for helping your child develop friendships in the early years? Leave a comment in the comments section below!

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