A common stress for parents of young children, particularly as they start school, is their ability to make friends.
“Exclusion is the worst thing that can happen to somebody,” says William Bukowski, a psychology professor at Concordia University who’s researched friendship in childhood and adolescence.
Kids being ignored can be harder to notice than them being bullied, which is why Bukowski believes teachers especially should try to keep an eye out for it.
Studies have shown good friendships convey a range of health benefits. So learning how to make friends is a critical skill that can take people far in life.
But it’s not one that comes easily to everyone.
U.S.-based psychologist Fred Frankel, and author of the book “Friends Forever: How Parents Can Help Their Kids Make and Keep Good Friends,” says girls can have a harder time making friends because they’re more likely to be “clique-ish.”
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They tend to have deeper social relations than boys, Frankel explains, so they “replace rather than add” to their friend circle.
Both sexes often struggle with the transition between elementary to junior high, though. It can be a difficult time because of all the changes happening at once, including puberty, Frankel says.
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The start of each school year can act like an annual reset button and is usually the easiest time to make friends for most people aged four to 21. But the foundation for friendship-building starts at home.
Here are the experts’ top tips for parents.
1. Teach kids how to be a good host
Frankel dedicates an entire chapter in his book to the rules of being a good host — a skill that will carry through to adulthood.
It essentially boils down to the golden rule and putting the guest before yourself. Kids should be taught not to criticize or abandon their guest and not be too bossy, which can be challenging for kids with ADHD.
Parents can help children in this department by modelling good host behaviour. For instance, you could say: “My friend is coming over…I’m going to make lunch for her.” Then let the child see how you treat your guest.
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You could also ask kids what nice things they do for their friends and what they like about them, and get them to think how their playmate might feel if they won’t share toys.
According to Bukowski, there are two main models that explain what makes a good friend.
One centers around the notion that people like those who provide something for them — be it fun, help, happiness, laughter, or opportunities. The other model says we like to hang around like-minded individuals.
2. Help set up play dates
When kids are younger, experts say parents should create opportunities for them to socialize with kids who share common interests.
This could mean signing them up for activities they enjoy and ideally aren’t too competitive, or just even inviting over family friends with kids.
Keep in mind that pairing two children who are lonely may not be the best idea; two kids with ADHD can also be a recipe for disaster because “they’re worse together,” warns Frankel.
While you don’t want to be over-controlling, you may want to weed out friends who you don’t think will be a good influence, Frankel suggests.
However, provide a “better” alternative whenever possible (keeping your child’s personality and interests in mind) because, as he points out: “if the kid is friendless and desperate, playing with anyone is a treat.”
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You could turn to your child’s teacher for friendship-matching advice, since teachers should know the social landscape of their classroom.
Researchers have seen success with buddy programs as well, especially if they match older socially inept kids with younger socially-advanced children.
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3. Monitor and correct
Don’t let your child have “play slaves.” That’s what Frankel calls it when kids invite others over just to boss them around.
Check in on kids’ play dates and if you notice a problematic behaviour or conflict, coach them through it.
Frankel recommends pulling your child aside (to avoid public shaming) and reminding him or her of the “good host” rule. Focus on the one that was broken and get the child to promise not to do it anymore.
For the “teachable moment” to be most effective, it should be flagged as soon as the behaviour occurs.
“Usually that’s enough. Kids want to be liked and they’re doing things out of habit,” Frankel says.
If sharing is a problem, in some situations you could put away any toy the child is very attached to.
As Frankel learned when his son was five and really enjoyed building models, “there are some toys some children really don’t want to share. They might want to show it but don’t want their friend to take it apart.”
Putting them out of sight can prevent any problematic situations.
4. Don’t panic
One of Bukowski’s studies has shown that a child’s friendships fluctuate throughout the school year, so parents shouldn’t worry too much about a lull unless it seems chronic.
Tracy Vaillancourt, a professor of education and psychology at the University of Ottawa, stresses making and maintaining friendships is a skill that can be acquired.
Some parents may feel the impulse to shield children who are shy or are having trouble fitting in by picking them up at school so they don’t have to endure a dreaded bus ride, for instance. That actually can further isolate children from their peers, she argues, suggesting that making friends is like any other skill — the more you do it, the better at it you become.
— With files from Helen Branswell, The Canadian Press