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I am often asked, usually by the parents of friend-less kids, how parents can teach their children how to make friends.

Parents can, to a degree, teach their children friend-making skills but parents cannot protect their children from the inevitable hurts of childhood.

In the early school years children generally play under supervision and play with both same-sex and opposite-sex children. Somewhere around age seven or eight friendships become very important. Now children play most and best with children of the same sex and age and they generally play by themselves with no adults around.

At this age, if it hasn’t happened already, children sort themselves out into leaders and followers. They also begin to sort out according to popularity. Some children seem to make friends easily and always have lots of friends. Others have more trouble making friends.

What causes some children to be popular and others to be less so? Personality and temperament, those basic traits we are born with. Children who make friends effortlessly tend to be outgoing, energetic, and often quite athletic. They are eager to try new things, it is easy for them to talk to people, and they enjoy having lots of people around.

The child who is less popular tends to be on the shy side, more cautious especially when it comes to interacting with new people, not very outgoing especially with peers, and more content to be alone. Although such children may have an intense friendship (usually with one child at a time), they do not readily seek out the company of other children.

It’s really tough for parents to watch a child experience the pain of non-acceptance or the hurt of peer rejection. Watching the child’s struggles to make friends may remind them of their own painful childhood memories.

Being loving parents we always want to “fix it” for our child. Alas, one of the things parents cannot do is find a friend for their child. We cannot make a friendship happen. We cannot make our child popular. We cannot turn a shy child into an extrovert surrounded with friends.

Also if a parent gets too involved the child may think there’s a real mountain when it’s only a little molehill. A child could also think he or she is disappointing you and may stop talking about friends or loneliness.

Because we really can’t do much to help and because our efforts to do so may give the message that we are displeased with our child, this is a good place for parents to back off.

Expert in childhood development, Louise Bates Ames, wrote, “Parents often worry about a child’s lack of friends more than the child does. It can help parents if they realize that not all children have an equal need of friends.”

My suggestions for parents:

Don’t assume the child feels bad about playing being alone as some children like this. Alone is not necessarily lonely.

Remind yourself that it is the child’s problem.

Distance yourself so that any painful memories of your own do not intrude.

Encourage your child to talk about the problem but don’t keep asking about it.

Let your child know that you understand. Share a memory or two about how you felt when you were a child in a similar situation but don’t lay it on too thick. Follow up with a story about how you found friends when you got older.

Allow children to be themselves. If your child is shy, give the kid plenty of time to “warm up”. If introverted, allow the child lots of play-alone time without implying there’s something wrong.

Spend time to teach your child social skills. Although some children instinctively find the task of friend-making easy most children need to be taught the rules. You can role-play to teach the child how to approach new friends. Make a game out of making eye-contact. Show your child how to smile when approaching another child. Explain how it’s easy to start talking when you share something you like to do. Teach your child how to share an interesting fact like we have 7 baby quail in the yard.

Watch your child at play from behind the scenes without interfering. Don’t correct the child when the friends are around but make observations later. If the child is too passive, suggest ways to interact. Be sure to do positive reinforcement like, “You were really nice to share your Barbie doll’s clothes with Sarah.”

If your child complains about too much time alone, find group activities that have leaders like a sports team or scouts. Also arrange for outings with one or two other children and help your child make phone calls to invite friends over to play. Here again role play so your child will know what to say on the telephone.

Ask your child’s teacher about behavior at school. The teacher’s observations and suggestions can be very helpful.

Take your child to the library and look together for children’s books on friend-making.