Going back to school can give even the most charming and outgoing kid the jitters -- there are new kids to contend with in class, constantly shifting social dynamics, plus the everyday anxiety that can come with starting something new. So whether your kid's new in school, working through a shy phase, or just a little bit clueless, here's how you can help her make friends.
Teach the Foundation of Friendship
Kids naturally gravitate towards children who are able to share and who don't hit, yell or whine. Teaching those basic friendship skills begins at home. Modeling friendly behavior is the clearest way to teach it. "Be kind to your kids. How you relate to them is how they will relate to peers and friends," says family psychotherapist Fran Walfish, author of The Self-Aware Parent.
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Structure Your Child’'s Play
When your child is first learning to make friends, it can be helpful to pave the way. "But only do as much scaffolding as it takes to get kids started interacting," says personality psychologist and mom of two Heidi Smith Luedtke. "Your goal is to support your child in developing friendships, not to do the work for him."
Start by giving your child's interactions some structure. For kids who just need a little nudge, identifying their similar interests -- "Laura, here's Sally! She likes princesses too!" -- may be enough. For younger kids and those who need a bit more direction, "point out appropriate choices for play, like modeling clay or building with blocks," Luedtke says.
Put Words in Your Kid's Mouth
"I like ___ because ___. Can I help you ____?" is a great opening sentence to rehearse with your kids, says Julia Simens, author of Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child. "For instance, your child could say, 'I like your tall building block hospital because it looks like a real place. Can I help you add a parking garage?'" When your child is positive and specific, she's less likely to get turned down.
Speak Their Body Language
Kids have to learn how faces and bodies convey emotions, says mom and child psychologist Andrea Weiner, who specializes in social and emotional skills. "Mirror modeling" teaches six basic emotions: happy, sad, angry, scared, surprised and disgusted.
"Have your child [make] an angry face in the mirror. Point out how their mouth curls, how their eyes get 'crinkly' or how their shoulders or hands tense," Weiner says. "When a child can see what their face and body looks like -- and hear how their voice sounds -- when dealing with different emotions, it registers in the brain. Then they are able to [recognize] these non-verbal cues with others."
And that's the key to the next step: Modeling how a smiling face, direct eye contact and gentle touches to the arm or hand (think high fives) lets someone know you want to be friends.
Break the Ice
It's not easy to strike up a conversation with someone you don't know. Weiner suggests parents role play using friendly non-verbal cues and opening lines like these with their children:
-- Hey, I see you're playing tag. Can I play with you, too?
-- I like what you're building (sandcastle, Legos, blocks). Can I help, too?
-- I like your backpack. Where did you get it?
Begin with One Friend
Making that first friend is key in helping people feel settled, says Jill Kristal, clinical psychologist and president of Transitional Learning Curves. Some kids will make a bunch of friends all at once, but for many, it takes time. Finding just one friend that your child can count on is a realistic goal. "Parents need to both encourage kids to get out there and get involved -- and be supportive when kids can't or won't."
Make a Date
Arranging a playdate can help a child test the waters of friendship in the security of their own home, where their confidence is likely to be greatest. Here's how to schedule the fun:
-- Limit the playdate to two kids so they can get to know each other one-to-one, says psychologist and psychiatry professor Irene S. Levine, who writes The Friendship Doctor blog.
-- Offer simple activities for two, such as tossing a ball, playing with dolls or cars, or for older kids, playing a game. For younger children, be sure to offer two similar items, so there's one for each child, says pediatric occupational therapist Lisa Shooman, mother of three and founder of FUNction Therapy.
-- Stay alert to what's happening but resist the urge to hover and solve every little problem, Levine says.
Find Friends Everywhere
Parents can and should help kids bond, says psychotherapist Tammy Gold, mother and founder of Gold Parent Coaching. Two ways to do that without it feeling forced:
-- Get your kids outdoors at the local park, moving, smiling and laughing, until you can help facilitate an introduction with another child.
-- Put a team roster to good use: Invite kids from your child's sports team, ballet class or activity club to a picnic.
Accept (Almost) Every Invitation
In her book Moms Moving Manual: Managing a Family Move in the New Economy, Robin Leiman advises encouraging kids to have an open-arms approach to making friends: "My close friend in 11th grade told me, 'If a boy asks you out on a date, even if you don’t think you're going to like him, go anyway because you might like one of his friends.' You don't know who you'll meet or which people you're going to like until you spend a little time with them."
Be a Good Citizen
When you can, use family time as an opportunity to bond in your community -- that way, your child can start to learn how to make conversation with people you see often but don’t know well, suggests Julia Simens, author of Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child.
“Hold the door for someone, listen with empathy, give compliments, and keep negativity about others to a minimum,” adds psychotherapist Barbara Neitlich, a former school therapist who has worked extensively with children to help them learn positive social skills. Your child will learn from your example.
Be Prompt and Well-Rested
Teachers and students move quickly to make classroom connections, says Julia Simens, author of Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child. "A kid who misses out on those early introductions may suffer." Her advice: Arrive on time with a well-rested child to help your kid get off on the right foot -- especially those first few days of the school year. The same goes for nearly all organized activities with a set starting time, from birthday parties to sports activities to after-school events.
Make Friends with Fellow Parents
Getting involved with a parents’ group can help you and your child make friends, says clinical psychologist John Duffy, author of The Available Parent. When parents become friends, they are able to model positive relationship-building for their children. Of course, kids to connect on their own terms, too. “Even though parents may introduce their kids to their friends' kids, the children still need to drive that connection,” he says.
Ask a Teacher for Advice
Teachers tend to know which kids need a little help in the friendship department, says Simens. "Often, a teacher will know which child is isolated because they're coming into a class late in the school year, or because a good friend just moved away." With a sense of which kids are eager to make -- and keep -- a new friend, teachers can be invaluable in helping kids connect and be successful socially.
Sign Up and Lend a Hand
Join and participate in a local organization as a family. Faith-based and community-focused groups -- art centers, museums, community gardens -- offer ample opportunity to connect with families in your community and can help expand your child’s social network, says Candi Wingate, president of Nannies4Hire.
You can also create your own friendly, volunteer project to help your kids make friends. Daniel Rothner, founder of the Jewish service organization Areyvut, says service is a fun way to get to know each other.
-- Plant a garden at a local nursing home.
-- Organize a park clean-up.
-- Sell lemonade and donate the proceeds to your favorite charity.
Know When to Get Help
If your child is still struggling, talk to your pediatrician and seek help from a therapist. "Many disruptive behaviors are completely normal for young children," says child and family therapist Maria Marinakis. "Clinicians look for clusters and patterns of behaviors that would indicate a specific concern."
You might need more help if your child:
-- resists playing with other kids even after practicing with you.
-- doesn't make eye contact.
-- doesn't ask questions or offer conversation, or doesn't respond to other children trying to engage.
-- prefers to play alone, engages in repetitive activities, insists on keeping toys in a particular order and becomes highly distressed when the order is disrupted.
-- appears to be in their own world most of the time or gets caught up in repetitive activities like moving their fingers in front of their eyes.
-- attempts to engage other children by hitting or knocking over their toys.
Connect Online First
Search for Yahoo and Google groups related to family, playgroups, or parenting in your local area. Look for groups that have a significant number of members, are moderated, and are actively exchanging messages. You’re likely to find parents spreading the word about popular activities, scheduling playgroups, and sharing advice.
For more online help, check out a web-based “matching service” for kids and activities. Jen Lilienstein, a former military kid who moved around a lot, created Kidzmet.com to help families identify the best extracurricular activities for kids who share a similar personality type.
Hit the Books
These books help kids make their own discoveries about how to make friends:
• Join In and Play by Cheri J. Meiners
• How to Be a Friend: A Guide to Making Friends and Keeping Them by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown
• Personal Space Camp by Julia Cook
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