The beginning of school can bring up a lot of worries for kids: Will my teacher be nice? Will the work be too hard? Will the homework be too much? Will I get picked on? Will I be able to find the bathroom? But the biggest worry by far—one that tugs at the mind of pretty much ever child is—Will I have a friend?
Friendships matter deeply to kids. They’re not just a source of fun. Having good friends helps kids feel happier, manage stress, learn important social skills, be more engaged in school, gain a sense of belonging, and develop healthy self-esteem. A study by Catherine Bagwell at Duke University and her colleagues found that compared to children who did not have a reciprocated close friend (meaning someone they liked who liked them back), children who had a mutual best friend in fifth grade reported better self-worth twelve years later. Children who have good friends are also less likely to be bullied.
As parents, we can’t make friends for our kids, but there’s a lot we can do to support healthy friendships for our kids. Here are some ways to help:
Help your child identify likely friends
Research tells us that chronically friendless children tend to pursue friendship with kids who are dissimilar to them. Friendship grows out of common ground. Kids are most likely to make friends with kids who are similar to them in age, gender, interests, and behavior. In a new classroom, help your child figure out “Which kids are like me?”
Focus on fun activities
Kids make friends by doing fun things together. The positive feelings that come when children have a good time together can spill over into positive feelings about each other. Shared activities also add to the common ground. Talk with your child about what he or she enjoys doing that could be done with other children. This could include neighborhood or playground games as well as more formal after-school activities.
Emphasize connecting rather than impressing
Some children believe what I call The Magnet Myth: They think they have to be so amazing and wonderful that they draw friends to them the way a magnet attracts steel. This myth can lead to either unattractive bragging or painful and unproductive self-criticism. It’s also just plain wrong. Making friends has nothing to do with impressing others or being amazing. Friendship is a relationship between equals. Tell your child it’s more useful to focus on enjoying someone’s company and making sure that potential friend potential friend enjoys being with your child.
Teach your child to recognize stop signals
Sometimes children unintentionally push friends away by doing things that other kids find annoying and persisting. Everyone makes social mistakes. We might tell a joke that’s not funny, accidentally make a comment that’s insensitive, or fidget in a way that irritates others. This is fine as long as we stop. Teach your child to recognize the signals that peers want him or her to stop doing something. These could include comments such as “Quit it!” or “You’re being annoying!” as well as nonverbal signs such as sighs or eye rolls. Ignoring a stop signal sends the message, “I don’t care about your feelings!” which is certainly not a good way to build a friendship. Make some plans with your child about what to do in response to a stop signal. Possibilities include saying “Sorry!” and moving farther away, crossing their arms or sitting on their hands, or closing their mouth and silently counting to thirty.
Have one-on-one playdates
The single best thing you can do as a parent to support your child’s friendships is to help your child arrange one-on-one playdates. Some kids only want to invite someone over if they’re already intimate friends, but if your child has had fun once with a peer, that’s a good enough basis to invite that child over. Inviting someone for a one-on-one get together communicates, “I like you, and I’d like to spend more time with you!” It allows kids to get to know each other better and to enjoy each other’s company.
You may want to help your child plan possible activities beforehand. When the guest arrives, have your child offer two choices of activities, so the kids can immediately start having fun instead of awkwardly wondering what to do. Be ready to intervene with an offer of a snack if tempers start to get heated. Keep the playdate short—one and a half to two hours—so it ends on a high note, with the kids wanting to spend more time together.
Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, is the co-author of Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends.
Your child also needs a bit grit for the new school year ahead. Here’s how to build it.