Making New Friends

Making new friends comes easily to children. Babies are naturally social, looking for and desiring familiar faces from infancy. Facial features and expressions are attractive to babies, and at a young age, an angry expression can upset a baby just as easily as a smile can produce a laugh. These reactions are emerging social skills that begin in infancy and continue to develop as the baby grows. Soon, sounds and words are used to express feelings and needs, and this develops into communication. This is related to friendship, because as children develop communication skills, the way they interact with others changes, grows and develops, changing the meaning of friendship at different ages.

How Toddlers Socialize
Toddlers begin making friends by engaging in parallel play. They may use words to describe what they see and what they're doing, but it's not real conversation. Soon they will interact, as they will want each other's toys or want to be involved in what the other child is doing. This is the age in which children learn to share and practice using their words. Parents can encourage friendships by working with their child to use words to express wants and needs. Toddlers can also practice social skills, such as taking turns and sharing. Arranged play dates can be made easier by offering a limited number of toys to share.

Children ages three to five are increasingly interactive in play. They will be interested in pretend play, art and games. Parents can help children develop friendships by inviting children or other families to meet at social outings for play time, and by getting children into activities with kids their own age. Preschool is excellent for giving kids the opportunity to develop social skills in structured situations. If a child is not in preschool, parents should consider activities such as dance or art classes with kids the same age.

Parents can also encourage children to get involved with other children who are playing by teaching them words to use to get invited to play. For example, "Hi. I'm Susan. Can I play?"

The School Years
Children ages six to nine will often develop close friendships with a couple of kids and play generally with many. Parents need to teach children to use words to describe feelings, and to learn to compromise if friends want to do things in a different way. Parents also need to teach children the appropriate ways to play and to say no if one child suggests something that is against the rules. It's important for children to learn to be self-assured and confident in their own decisions.

Children 10 and up develop increasingly complex friendships and start to notice the opposite gender. Parents would do well to encourage children to choose friends that have similar interests or personalities, or those who are fun to be with and exhibit kindness. If children this age have trouble making friends, parents can talk to the child's teacher, perhaps pairing the child up with a younger child for tutoring or peer help. Sometimes developing friendships with a younger child can help a shy tween to feel more confident. Shy tweens may also benefit from a friendship with a slightly older child who likes to lead activities. Get your tween involved in social activities he enjoys, such as sports, youth groups, scouting, dance or art classes or clubs.

How to Deal with Bad Friends
If your child chooses a friend that you don't like, tread carefully. Think of the reasons you don't like this person. If it is minor, such as an annoying laugh or mannerisms, you will undermine your child's confidence in his ability to make friends if you badmouth the friend. If the other child is rude, sarcastic or bossy, ask your child why she likes this friend. Ask her about the things that concern you without calling the friend names or using labels. Ask your child if the things that you have observed bother her.

Don't forbid the friendship, as this often backfires and makes your child want the friendship more. You'll set up a struggle between your child's confidence in his decision-making and need independence and your need to steer him toward positive decisions. Friendships come and go in the early school years, so chances are the problem will resolve itself.
 
If, however, you suspect the friend is attempting to involve your child in dangerous or illegal activities, you have to sever the friendship. Remind your child that you have set rules and expectations for behavior, and these extend to time spent with friends.

Try to help your child widen her social circle in appropriate settings, to make friends that will be a good influence. Teach your child how to select friends that won't pressure her to compromise on what she knows is right. It is very important for children to learn to be assertive and to say no to a peer without fear of losing a friend. Talk to your tween about the meaning of friendship, and how good friends don't ask or expect others to do things they know are wrong.

Losing a Friendship
When a child stops being friends with another child, parents should be supportive. Talk about what happened to end the friendship. Listen to your child. If it is his fault, talk about the behaviors that led to the breakup and what he could have done differently. Remind your child about the expectations for kindness, honesty and making good choices.

Regardless of the reason, talking about what makes a good friend is an important lesson that helps your child set the foundation for making better choices in the future.

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