When my daughter Sadie was in kindergarten, I used to ask her which friends she played with at recess. More than once she replied, "No one wanted to play with me." I would imagine my lonely 5-year-old kicking pebbles on the playground while the other kids ran and laughed nearby. It broke my heart. So I made an effort to host more playdates and helped Sadie practice ways to feel comfortable breaking the ice with her peers. I'm glad I did. By second grade her social situation had improved dramatically.
"Your child needs buddies as much as she needs food and exercise," says Fred Frankel, Ph.D., director of the UCLA Parent Training & Children's Friendship Program and author of Friends Forever. One review of research found that children who find it challenging to make and keep friends are more likely to drop out of school and have mental issues like aggression and depression as teenagers. Those who can effectively navigate social situations have less anxiety and greater self-confidence, notes Kristen Eastman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Center for Pediatric Behavioral Health at the Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital.
While most kids start forging friendships on their own when they start school, even the most outgoing children will face social challenges at some point. Preschoolers are still developing the ability to share things and play nicely with others, which often leads to conflicts, and early grade-schoolers can be selfish, bossy, and exclusionary. If your child is having a hard time breaking into a group or getting along with her peers, she may need your help -- though how (and how much) you should intervene depends on the particular dilemma. We've rounded up some common kid complaints and suggested solutions.
Why It Happens: Unlike toddlers, who are perfectly content to play solo, preschoolers prefer the company of others. But they may feel awkward asking if they can help build a block tower or jump into a game of hopscotch. "Some kids worry that they might be rejected if they ask to join other children who are in the middle of an activity," says Carol Baicker-McKee, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of The Preschooler Problem Solver.
Smart Strategy: Reassure your child that even grown-ups can feel nervous when approaching people they don't know -- but that there are ways to make it easier. Teach her this three-step process, do some role-playing at home, and then take her to a park for a test run:
Recommended Reading: Will I Have a Friend? by Miriam Cohen. In this timeless kids' title, a shy kindergartner finally overcomes his new-school jitters when he befriends a boy and joins a group.
Why It Happens: Some kids are natural leaders, others are followers, and the majority are somewhere in between. Assertive types (who tend to gravitate toward passive kids) may butt heads with those who have an equally strong personality and may not consider the effects of their pushy ways on others.
Smart Strategy: Help your child to find a middle ground between being bossy and being pushed around. Offer a simple script he can use, such as "I don't want to play that. I want to do this instead." He needs to suggest a specific alternative so his friend knows he'll stand up for himself. If the idea of challenging his pal makes him apprehensive, encourage him to channel a brave character he admires, such as the elephant in Horton Hears a Who. "Pretending to be an imaginary character makes a child less self-conscious about taking control," says Dr. Baicker-McKee.
Recommended Reading: A Weekend With Wendell, by Kevin Henkes. Sophie resents her pushy pal Wendell until she learns how to assert herself with him. Then the two have a blast together.
Why It Happens: Toddlers aren't very particular about whom they play with, but kids develop a stronger sense of their likes and dislikes by preschool and into kindergarten. They're also discovering that they can control others by using their words. Sue Sando, of Lansing, Michigan, remembers when her daughter, Michelle, came home in tears after her two closest pals told her, "We don't like you. You're not our friend anymore." Indeed, three is often a crowd with girls. A study published in Child Development found that girls ages 3 to 5 tend to prefer one-on-one play, whereas boys the same age veer toward groups.
Smart Strategy: When your child is on a playdate with two or more kids, try to steer her toward group activities to break the ice, such as an art project or a game of hide-and-seek. Often these structured starts lead to more natural, harmonious playtime later on. Or, as Sando did, ask your child's teacher to recommend someone with similar interests who might be a good playdate match for her.
Recommended Reading: This Is Our House, by Michael Rosen. George won't let anyone else at the playground into his cardboard house until the tables are turned and he learns how it feels to be the one who's excluded.
Why It Happens: Young kids can be remarkably self-centered. They fixate on what they want at any given moment and have a hard time negotiating or problem solving.
Smart Strategy: If a playdate turns into a conflict, don't jump in right away. Give the kids a chance to work it out on their own, since it's important for them to learn how to navigate typical relationship dilemmas. If they're unable to work it out, prompt them to brainstorm ways to settle their dispute. You might say something like, "How about playing Danny's game for ten minutes and then playing Brian's?" Or ask if they can come up with another option. If these efforts fail, have the kids take a pause and shift gears. Give them a healthy snack, let them run around the backyard to blow off some steam, and, if necessary, have them play in separate areas for a while.
Recommended Reading: Luka's Quilt, by Georgia Guback. When Luka's grandmother decides to make a Hawaiian quilt for her, the two disagree over its colors and have to work out a compromise.
Why It Happens: It's common for a younger sibling to intrude on a playdate, and your older child's friend may enjoy how easy it is to lead around a little sib. Or it could simply be the dynamic on a particular day: Your older child may be intent on his Legos while the other two boys want to play Beyblades.
Smart strategy: If your younger child is old enough, try to schedule a simultaneous playdate for him. Otherwise, do your best to keep him busy with other activities. If you can't separate him, encourage your older kid to join them, or come up with ideas for an activity everyone might enjoy next ("Maybe James would like to go on the swings once he's done with their game").
Recommended Reading: The Big Alfie and Annie Rose Storybook, by Shirley Hughes. In one chapter of this collection, Alfie's friend comes over and ends up hanging out with Alfie's little sister, Annie Rose. Alfie must learn to overcome his feelings of disappointment.
Your child and her pal are practically joined at the hip. They have special nicknames and a private handshake. At school they pair up in line, at lunch, and at recess. Is that a problem?
Not necessarily. "A best friend is a wonderful thing," says Dr. Fred Frankel. Numerous studies confirm that having a long-lasting friendship boosts a child's security and self-esteem and helps buffer the impact of stressful events, like starting at a new school. Even spats between two friends can be constructive, since they'll force them to develop problem-solving skills that will come in handy down the road with a spouse, a boss, and their own kids.
That said, you don't want your child's singular friendship to become so intense that she cuts off other peers. Relying exclusively on one buddy isn't healthy -- kids can grow apart, and your child needs someone else to fall back on. While there's no need to "break them up," encourage her to make other friends and play in bigger groups more often. "It's important for your child to have a few kids with whom she feels some sense of intimacy," says Dr. Carol Baicker-McKee.