By Gill Canning
Are you part of a close-knit group of friends? Perhaps your circle is one you’ve belonged to since school or university, or does it centre around your workplace? Maybe you’re one of those lucky people who met their best friend at preschool and you’re still best buddies today?
Whatever the case, we all need friends – people to share life’s experiences and to (hopefully) stick by us through thick and thin.
Parents often fret about their children’s friends (or lack of), especially when they are going through transition stages such as starting ‘big school’ or changing schools.
If you believe your child is struggling to make friends, there are a few easy ways you can (subtly) help:
1. Lead by example. Try and get to know a couple of other mums from the class and see if you can set up some playdates with their children.
2. If you are working and have no opportunity for play dates, try and be at school for 5 minutes before or after the bell so if your child mentions another child’s name at home, you will know who they are talking about. Having some involvement in their world – no matter how small – can help a budding friendship move forward.
3. Make sure your child knows basic interaction skills. Encourage them to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’, to use eye contact and use people’s names. They may seem like small things but children often gravitate towards kids who are good communicators.
4. Look for children with shared interests. If your child does ballet/ horse riding/cricket, perhaps you can arrange a get-together with a child from that extracurricular group. A common interest to set them off may lead to something bigger.
If your child has friends but no real ‘best friend’, try not to focus on this fact. Some kids are happy flitting from social group to social group. Indeed, this can suggest they can see the benefits of different social groups. Not having a ‘best friend’ is probably not a problem unless you make it one.
If your child seems to make friends but not know how to keep them, you may need to get a little more involved. Make sure he is not doing anything to annoy or hurt his friends and once again, be a bit more proactive with initiations to sleepovers/playdates/get-togethers to help him consolidate his skills and maybe turn an ‘acquaintance’ into an ‘amigo’.
The local playground or park can be a handy place to practise social skills. It can help to take along a toy, football or even your dog to help your child break the ice with other kids. Observe the way your child plays with others (eg. Does he share? Is he considerate? Does he dominate?) and help him develop those skills at home if need be.
DOS AND DON'TS
DON’T ask your child every day, ‘Who did you play with today?’ A couple of times a week is enough to make sure they are mentioning a few names.
If your child is not being invited to many birthday parties, DON’T panic (we’ve all been there) but DO speak to the teacher. Some schools have policies that a birthday party must include the whole class and this can deter parents from having parties at all.
DON’T worry too much if your child’s friends are in older years. This probably just means your child has advanced social/conversational/sporting skills.
DON’T buy into squabbles between kids. Day-to-day issues usually resolve themselves; if after a week there are still problems, then follow up with the teacher.
DON’T criticise children who you feel are being mean to your child in front of him/her. Often, they’ll all be friends again next week and your child may be confused by your criticism.
DO work with your child’s teacher. If you are worried, ask her if she thinks your child is being stand-offish or displaying other behaviour that might alienate her classmates. Also, DO ask her if she can suggest another little girl or boy who might make an ally for your child and ask her to pair them up in activities.
Best of Friends
If you and/or your child’s teacher are concerned about your child’s social maturity, it can be a good idea to get professional advice. Many psychologists will conduct observations in schools, where they assess your child’s play skills. If they feel they need help, there are social skills programs that may be of benefit.
The Quirky Kid Clinic in Woollahra, NSW runs the ‘Best of Friends’ program, where kids learn to how to behave in order to attract friends and not alienate other kids.
Kimberley O’Brien, principal child psychologist, says the six-week program can be run with a whole class or even a whole grade, so that the whole class benefits – not just the child who needs it most.
“The kids love the program,” she says. “We bring lots of art and craft materials and other props and at the end of the program, we have a little party and put their new social new skills ‘to the test’.”