Playdates at the park. Backyard games of hide-and-seek. Tea parties and tree forts. Having friends is not only fun, it is also important for a child. "Friendships are critical to helping children improve their communication, sharing, empathy, problem-solving, and creativity," says Rachelle Theise, Psy.D., a clinical assistant professor and child psychologist at the NYU Child Study Center in New York City. "Friends help children learn to get along with others and interact with the world." Although some children are naturally social, shyness can be a barrier for other kids in developing friendships, but it's "one of the things we can really help children overcome," says Gail Gross, Ph.D., a psychologist and child development expert in Houston, Texas. There's no need to turn your child into a social butterfly, but helping him feel more socially confident? Absolutely possible, Dr. Gross says. Teach your child the skills that will help him become more confident and comfortable making friends.
Practice saying hello. Encourage your child to address someone new and ask for his name. Or suggest an activity your child can play with a peer. "Practicing and rehearsing social skills in a safe and warm environment will support your child by teaching him social cues and age-appropriate social skills practices," Dr. Gross suggests. Your child can also practice greeting techniques with family members and family friends until he becomes more comfortable with the norms of meeting someone new.
Start with small steps. "Begin by exposing your child, little by little, in small increments each day, to social exposure. Through the safety of your parental involvement, your child will learn how to feel confident and safe," Dr. Gross says. So skip that drop-off birthday party with two dozen kids and instead opt for a short walk to the frozen yogurt store with the next-door neighbor and her daughter.
Plan a playdate at home. "Shy children feel more comfortable in their own home, so host a playdate at your house and provide an activity that requires less conversation and more participation," Dr. Thiese suggests. This way your child won't be overwhelmed with a new environment while working on her shyness.
Maintain a presence. "In the beginning it is important to be there for your child consistently when she interacts with other children," Dr. Gross explains. "If you structure a playdate, hang around so that your child is supported by her home team."
Build trust. When you set up playtimes, make sure they have a beginning and an end that can be clearly adhered to. "If you tell your child that he is going to visit his friend for 30 minutes, make sure you say goodbye and leave after 30 minutes," Dr. Gross says. If you're going to go to the other room to use the restroom or take a phone call, tell your child so he doesn't look up and find you gone. "Build social confidence and competence. Trust is based on experience. If your child can trust you, he will learn to trust himself and therefore others."
Even if your child isn't shy, helping her make friends doesn't just mean signing her up for social group activities like ballet or basketball. There are a variety of ways to help shape her view of friendship, develop her social skills, and provide opportunities for her to connect with other children with similar interests and values.
Read (and talk) about friendship. "Children learn so much through the narrative of a great story. Look for books that feature friendships, compassion, and sharing," says Lee Scott, a member of the Educational Advisory Board for The Goddard School and an education consultant in Okatie, South Carolina. "Talking about the characters, their feelings, and the story's outcomes will help your children learn how to be a friend. A few of my favorites are How Do Dinosaurs Play with Their Friends by Jane Yolen, Little Lonely Leigh by Sally Huss, and Making Friends Is an Art by Julia Cook."
Play games. "Games are a great way to help your child learn how to take turns, which is essential for being a great friend," Scott says. Start with an easy board game like Candy Land or the Ladybug Game, and then add more difficult ones as she becomes more comfortable with turn-taking. "Once your child learns how to play a game, invite a friend over to play it with your child," Scott adds.
Help someone else. Children learn to empathize, care, and consider other perspectives by participating in activities that help others. Have young ones start by helping you with simple tasks, such as creating a get-well card for a sick friend, collecting unused toys for children's hospitals, or making cookies for a neighbor.
Provide play opportunities. Instead of creating highly structured playdates, Scott suggests, choose an activity that allows for creative, open-ended play, such as making up games at a park or playground.
Show off your social skills. Parents can help children develop social-emotional skills through encouragement and modeling. "When you see your children exhibiting friendly behaviors, such as sharing and taking turns, praise them. This encourages children to repeat the positive behaviors," Scott says. "And by modeling positive, friendly behaviors, you can guide your children to do the same."