Supporting Your Child in Making Friends

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For some children, they seem to pick up on social skills naturally and without much support. For many children, however, being accepted and making friends can be one of the hardest parts about school. They may struggle with certain social skills that need to be explicitly taught by parents, their teachers and/or professionals. While we can sometimes put all our focus onto grades or whether our child is getting into trouble, it’s important to remember that how our child is doing socially is just as important to their emotional well-being and development as how they’re doing academically or behaviourally.

Evaluate:

The first step is to pinpoint exactly where your child is struggling. This may include:

  • Initiating play/interaction with others
  • Maintaining positive, cooperative play (e.g., sharing toys; asking for items; following another’s lead; following the rules of a game)
  • Conversation skills (e.g., asking/answering questions; taking turns in conversations)
  • Shyness (e.g., nervousness around unfamiliar peers)
  • Resolving conflict
  • Empathizing (e.g., a child might not realize that bragging about their new Nike shoes might make another child feel bad)
  • Reading social cues (e.g., a child might go on and on about a topic they find exciting, not realizing that the person they’re talking to has started to get bored)
  • Emotional regulation (e.g., having ‘meltdowns’ when feeling bad, mad or sad)
  • Sometimes, there may be more significant underlying challenges, such as Social Phobia; ADHD; Autism; or a language disorder. If you, your child’s teachers, or family physician have observed any red flags in these areas, you may wish to consider an assessment with a professional (e.g., Psychologist; Speech-Language Pathologist).

Intervene:

Depending on the areas of struggle you’ve identified, some things you can do may include:

  • In-the-moment coaching:
    • E.g., If you see your child observing a peer group from a distance or standing close by, that might be a sign (s)he wants to join, but is unsure as to how. You could coach your child by providing some phrases they can use to join in.
  • Planning play dates:
    • Play dates can help them practice social skills in a supported environment. You can ask your child’s teacher to help identify who your child may have shown an interest in, and whether they have reciprocated this interest. Involving your child in structured activities, like youth clubs, athletics, arts, etc., will also allow him/her additional opportunities to be around other children in a structured and supported environment.
  • Learning through Observation:
    • Encourage your child to watch what others are doing when they play, while listening to you or a teacher describe their activity.
    • Practice reading social cues while watching a movie (“He seems like he’s feeling bored in the conversation. See how his body is turned away and he is looking around the room?”)
  • Role-Playing:
    • This can be used to teach a variety of skills, such as conversational turn-taking or resolving conflict. During this time, your child can learn social scripts for different situations (e.g., “What should you say when…..?”)
  • Building emotion regulation skills:
    • Provide emotional labels and help them understand the link between their feelings, body reactions and triggers (e.g., “Your face is red and your hands are clenched tight. You must be feeling angry. You really wanted it to be your turn”).
    • Practice labelling emotions in others, such as characters on TV (e.g., “Look, he is crying and his head is down. I bet he’s feeling sad”).
    • Caregivers can model how they process and cope with emotions (e.g., During a game, a parent might say “I’m getting frustrated that it’s taking so long for it to be my turn! But I know that when Dad’s finished, it will be my turn again, so I’ll just wait and that way we can all have fun”)
  • Use Social Stories:
    • You can write or find stories that teach specific skills through story-telling, and re-read these stories before play dates. Support from a behavioural consultant might help to implement the use of Social Stories.

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