One of childhood’s most challenging lessons is to learn how to be a good friend. Some anxious and shy children find it really hard to face their fears, especially when it comes to making new friends. Your child desperately wants to be accepted - to fit in, to belong. But their “what if” thoughts, like “what if she doesn’t like me?” sometimes stop them from being brave. Some help and encouragement from you as the parent can make the world of difference to your worries and fears for your child, and also to theirs.

Understanding why Friendships are Important

Friendships add to your child’s social skill learning in a huge way. They help them foster empathy, and to become aware of someone else’s view point. They teach them the unspoken rules of how to have a conversation, including how to begin one and when to know a conversation is coming to an end. And they also help to teach age-appropriate behaviours. However, it is often the case that children that need help with emotional behavioural problems have no friends or find it very difficult to play with other children.

“Friends also have a powerful influence on a child’s positive and negative school performance and may also help to encourage or discourage deviant behaviors,” Dr. Paul Schwartz says, a professor of Psychology and Child Behavior Expert. “Compared to children who lack friends, children with ‘good’ friends have higher self-esteem, act more socially, can cope with life stresses and transitions, and are also less victimized by peers.”

These social skills can be learned in a number of ways and at a number of ages, although it's worth remembering there is no one-size-fits-all magic wand swoosh for figuring out friendships - children thrive socially over Minecraft as much as they do when pretending to be their favorite animals. But there are some ways to help children develop these relationship skills that will help them have valuable and meaningful connections with others.

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Here are some things you can do to help your child:

Model What It Means To Be A Good Friend:

Learning how to express their emotions in a healthy and constructive way is key for forming childhood friendships, studies on pre-schoolers show. "For young children to successfully engage in interpersonal exchanges and form the relationship necessary for positive school experiences with peers, they must learn to send and receive emotional messages in ways that are advantageous to both themselves and others,” say the researchers. And one of the ways your child will learn how to do this, is by watching you! If your child shows anger-related behaviours such as being aggressive, or hitting, kicking, shoving, knocking over or throwing objects, then it is time to step in. You can model this for her by teaching her the "I feel (feeling) because (reason)" technique. E.g. "I feel sad when I see you hitting your brother because you appear to be frustrated with him. How do you feel when your brother hits or kicks you?" The more you model this, and feed into your own friendships and talk openly about why you choose to do what you do, the more this will help demonstrate what it means to have a meaningful friendship to your child.

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Create Friendship Goals:

For both adults and children, being intentional about which friendships you really want will help you know where your energy is best invested. If you took a step back, and decided which friendships were truly valuable to you, you will know exactly which people to invest your time in and why. Ask your child which friend they want to have a really good friendship with. Set a goal such as “Ask your friend to a play date after school this month” or “say hi every morning”. If this friend is at a different school, plan to meet up over the weekends this month. This can be a very scary step for some children. Praise their efforts and be as supportive as possible.

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Set Up Play Dates:

Play dates  - aka doubling or tripling the number of children you have to look after – may not always seem like the ideal answer. They often mean a massive grass stain on your child’s new shirt or mud dragged into your villa just after it got cleaned. But remember this is all a part of your child’s social development. A simple teddy bear’s tea party with a friend can teach affection, empathy, negotiation and appreciating someone else’s perspective. “By interacting with their peers, children begin to learn about perspective taking, where they can realize how others may have different thoughts and feelings,” says Dr Theodote Pontikes from Loyola University in Chicago.

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Be Slow and Steady:

Start by inviting only one child. This helps your child feel more confident as they try out what it means to be a good friend. Remember, just like they test the boundaries at home with you, they will test the boundaries of a friendship too. It’s totally normal for tears and frustrations and “Deanna said she doesn’t want to be my friend anymore.” This is how your child learns what friendship means. A simple sorry can be all that’s needed for the two of them to be best friends again.

As a parent, be accessible during the play date, but get involved only when asked. Remember, it’s your child that is socializing and learning about empathy and how to get along in society - not you! Be in the background with some fun snacks and be ready to listen when they ask you to.

Read more: 'Help! My son has been behaving badly ever since we brought baby number two home'

Play:Date                                                                                                                                                                  Play:Date is a social application that helps build your little ones’ social circle. The platform helps to connect like-minded parents with similar aged children in your neighbourhood and across the globe, and is now available for download on iOS and Android.

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