Parents play a major role in helping young children develop a healthy social life. While it is essential that little ones have ample time and space to play freely with their peers, parents can help shape their child’s social skills so friendships are more likely to form. Here are six tips:
- Be a model friend. Little eyes and ears are always watching and listening. Children mimic the behaviors they observe. Be sure to demonstrate active listening, patience and politeness in all your interactions, and show kindness whenever possible. Avoid gossip, name-calling or bad-mouthing others – even if you think they aren’t listening.
- Try emotion coaching your child. Learn to reflect emotion empathically with your preschooler whenever possible. Dr. John Gottman teaches parents how to be an emotion coach and explains why it’s so important in his book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. Research shows that when parents actively use emotion coaching strategies, their child is better able to regulate his or her own emotions which leads to steady friendship-forming behavior.
- Practice with puppets or stuffed animals. One of the most effective ways to help preschoolers learn social skills is by setting up pretend social scenarios that your little one can relate to with puppets or stuffed animals. I remember when my own son was 3-years-old, he would bring me a puppet, put another puppet on his own hand and say, “Mommy, make Bunny talk pwease.” Then he would eagerly act out whatever was on his mind. I often use this play therapy technique with my youngest clients to facilitate social skills training in a playful way.
- Schedule one-on-one play dates. Some children feel overwhelmed in group settings. If this is your child, you may want to organize one-on-one play time with some initial structured activities to facilitate interaction before allowing them time and space to play freely.
- Respect the friend-chemistry. Let’s face it, sometimes two people just don’t click. This happens with young children, too! Personalities, energy levels and interests can clash making it difficult for a true friendship to form. If after a few tries it appears the friendship isn’t going to blossom, don’t push it.
- Read stories about friendship. Story time is one of the best ways to teach your child what it means to be a good friend. Some of my favorite books about friendship are: