Learning to get along with peers is difficult. Children’s social worlds are filled with different settings, constantly changing interactions, various individual personalities, shifting group dynamics, spoken and unspoken communication… It’s a lot for kids to navigate!
Recent research suggests that parents can play an important role in helping children learn social skills (e.g., Gregson et al., 2017; Mikami et al., 2010; Poulin, Nadeau, & Scaramella, 2012). Parents know their children intimately and can offer on-the-spot, personally relevant guidance to help children learn how to make and keep friends.
Here are some ways to be an effective friendship coach for your child.
Talk about thoughts and feelings
Talking about thoughts and feelings helps children develop a “theory of mind,” which means the ability to recognize and predict mental states and use them to explain social behavior. When we talk about thoughts and feelings with our children, we help them become aware of the hidden subtext that runs through every social interaction. Children with better-developed theories of mind tend to behave in kinder ways and are more accepted by their peers (e.g., Caputti et al., 2012).
You can use real-life experiences, books, TV shows, or movies to help your children recognize their own reactions and imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.
Start with just labeling feelings: “You’re feeling disappointed because…” “He’s excited about…” “She’s worried that…”
As your child gets more adept at understanding feeling labels, encourage perspective taking by asking questions such as “How is she feeling?” or “Why is he sad?”
Eventually, you can help your child infer connections between feelings and actions by asking questions such as “Why do you think she did that?” or “What would help him feel better?”
Create opportunities for friendships to grow
Your child can’t find friends sitting home alone. Kids make friends by doing fun things together. You may want to help your child figure out what types of activities he or she would enjoy doing with peers. This could involve organized activities such as a club or sport or more informal hanging out at the playground after school or on the weekend.
One-on-one play dates are a great way to deepen friendships. If your child can’t think of anyone to invite, the teacher may have some suggestions. Your child doesn’t have to be soulmates with kids before inviting them over. Just having enjoyed each other’s company is enough. The invitation is a compliment that says to the other child, “I like you enough to want to spend more time with you!” (See post on play date guidelines.)
Another option to consider is having a family game night. Invite another family with similar-age children over after dinner to play a lively game. Apples to Apples, Uno Attack, Taboo, or Catch Phrase are examples of ones to consider. After the game, serve dessert, then the kids can go off together while the adults chat. A family game night requires minimal effort but it’s a great way to build connections, for you and your child.
Avoid harsh criticism
Dealing with children who struggle socially can sometimes be frustrating. You may worry and wonder, “Why doesn’t she just listen to me?” or “How many times do I have to tell him?” You may be tempted to warn your child, “If you keep this up, no one will want to be around you!” Don’t say these comments. Harshness makes it harder for our kids to listen to what we say.
Our opinions matter deeply to our children, and we must be mindful that we can hurt them with careless words. Make sure your expectations are reasonable for this particular child, at this particular time. Be pleasable. I don’t think any of us ever outgrow our wish for our parents to be proud of us.
Assume that your child has good intentions and is dealing with problems the best way he or she can right now. Focus on progress rather than perfection. Concentrate on one skill at a time instead of trying to correct everything that your child does wrong.
Set the stage for success by asking your child before entering a challenging situation, “So, what do you need to remember when you’re…?” Kids are good at tuning out lectures, but thinking of a goal ahead of time can help your child keep that goal top of mind.
If you must correct your child in front of others, do so discreetly. A pre-arranged secret signal might be a useful reminder.
Stay in the background
It may be tempting to try to intervene to fix friendship problems for your child. However, it’s far more effective to help your child think through how to respond. A warm and noncontrolling approach makes it easiest for children to hear parental suggestions.
Don’t step in to solve a friendship problem that your child could solve. You can ask your child questions, make observations, suggest possible options, even practice difficult interactions with your child through role play, but let your child be in charge of deciding what to do and taking action.
When you stay in the background, you show your faith in your child’s ability to work things out (with your support).
Enjoy your child’s company
As parents, we need to find that delicate balance between treasuring our children as they are and helping them grow in their own special way. Although parent friendship coaching can be very helpful for children, it’s also important to have times when we set aside the goal of trying to help our children improve and just have fun together.
Caputi, M., Lecce, S., Pagnin, A., & Banerjee, R. (2012). Longitudinal effects of theory of mind on later peer relations: the role of prosocial behavior. Developmental psychology, 48(1), 257-270.
Gregson, K. D., Erath, S. A., Pettit, G. S., & Tu, K. M. (2016). Are they listening? Parental social coaching and parenting emotional climate predict adolescent receptivity. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 26(4), 738-752.
Gregson, K. D., Tu, K. M., Erath, S. A., & Pettit, G. S. (2017). Parental social coaching promotes adolescent peer acceptance across the middle school transition. Journal of Family Psychology, 31(6), 668-678
Mikami, A. Y., Lerner, M. D., Griggs, M. S., McGrath, A., & Calhoun, C. D. (2010). Parental influence on children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: II. Results of a pilot intervention training parents as friendship coaches for children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38(6), 737-749.
Poulin, F., Nadeau, K., & Scaramella, L. V. (2012). The role of parents in young adolescents’ competence with peers: An observational study of advice giving and intrusiveness. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 58(4), 437-462.