Making friends can be hard for anyone at any age, but for young children who are still developing mentally and socially, it can sometimes be challenging, overwhelming, and confusing.

Parents’ influence is instrumental when it comes to strengthening children’s social abilities. There are many things that parents can do to aid their children in making friends. This process doesn’t begin when children enter school, it begins much earlier in infancy and toddlerhood.

Communicate from the start
Communication with your child should start when he/she is a baby. Babies are learning language long before they can speak, and they pick up the complexities of communication from their families. They pay attention to parents’ facial expressions as well as their tone of voice. When parents respond to their babies’ sounds or babbling, they are teaching their baby the back-and-forth of conversation. The more responsive a parent is to a growing child, the more the child will learn, and the more socially competent they will become. Communicate verbally and non-verbally with your baby or child as often as you can.

Parenting style
Parenting style also is extremely important for helping children make friends since it influences children’s social skills. According to an article in Parenting Science parents who are too controlling and who use harsh punishment, actually cause their children to be more aggressive, and less able to discern between right and wrong. The article encourages authoritative parenting, which involves: setting reasonable limits for the child, while promoting sympathy and love. It is also recommended to communicate about feelings, and to discuss emotions, even the negative ones. This helps children better understand their own emotions, and down the road, will help them relate to children their own age.

A parent should strive for balance between of involvement in their children’s lives. This is a judgement call to be made based on a child’s age, maturity and social skills. School age children can benefit when their parent takes a step back and lets them figure things out for themselves; however, this recommendation doesn’t apply to bullying or anything situation involving a child’s safety.

It is also advised to pay attention to who your child is friends with. Children who have aggressive friends will likely develop behavioural issues themselves, and this in turn will make them a less desirable friend. Kids with behavioral issues “are more likely to get rejected by peers,” writes Gwen Dewar, Ph. D, in Parenting Science. Dewar recommends a parent monitor friendships without interjecting too much into their social life.

Explain the basics
When your child nears school age you may want to explain the basics of communication and conversation to them. Whether they are shy, confident, have lots of friends, or struggle to make friends, a child will benefit from reminders and explanations about social situations.

Start by explaining the basics to your child. Even if your child communicates well at home, they may feel anxious or self-conscious at school. This can negatively impact the way they communicate. Explain that eye contact, smiling and being polite are essential when talking to their classmates. Remind them to ask their peers questions, and to listen to the answer so they can ask a follow up question. Parents can even suggest questions that might help their child start a conversation with peers. For example, “do you have any brothers/sisters?”, “what do you like to do?”, “do you have any pets?”, “who is your teacher?” etc. Sharing things about their own life in a conversation can help make friends as well. For example saying things like, “I have a dog too, his name is Bruno,” or “I like playing soccer too. What position do you play?” shows interest, listening skills and opens the door for more conversation.

Make sure that your child knows that a conversation should be a balancing act, in which you take turns speaking, sharing, and asking questions.

Role play for practice
Role play is a powerful tool. You and your child can practice conversations to strengthen his/her social skills and help make friends. Start with a role play game where your child is the “desired friend” and you act as your child. Demonstrate how to approach a new child at school and how you would act and what you would say. Then switch roles. Give your child lots of praise about the things they did well, and gently remind them of the things they can work on. Shy or anxious children often have trouble with: eye contact, speaking at a volume that is loud enough to be heard but reasonable, and responding appropriately to other children. You could also practice giving appropriate compliments as this can be an ice breaker and open the door to friendship. For example: “Your clothes are pretty,” “That’s a nice drawing,” or “You’re a good soccer player.”

Role play shouldn’t just involve you and your child. After all, you are likely the one your child is most comfortable talking to and interacting with. Look for opportunities to interact with others in the community, and encourage your child to speak with cashiers, ask questions of librarians, or ask to pet a neighbor’s dog. This provides children with the chance to practice skills that the two of you have been working on.

Being kind and taking hints
Being kind also is important in friendship. Psychology Today states that children who are kind usually have fewer issues making friends. Being kind can involve sharing (pencils or snacks), or kind gestures (taking notes for someone who was sick), but children who give out too many gifts might be taken advantage of, so a balance must be in place.

Taking hints, or understanding social cues, is a big part in finding friends as well. Some children (for example, those with ADHD) may have trouble picking up on social cues. It may be helpful for parents to ask questions, make observations, and even suggest possible ways to handle a situation. But keep in mind that is important to let the child decide what to do and what action to take. If other children are adamant about not letting your child join in a game or activity, trying to force it may cause more social damage than just walking away and finding something else to do.

Parental advice is proven to go a long way with children. Be informed and clear when teaching your child about friendship.

Parental Science recommends the book Children’s Friendship Training, by Fred Frankel and Robert Myatt for a parent who’s looking for more in-depth information about helping children make friends. You can also read friendship based children’s books with your child. Check out Measured Moms Giant List of Books about Friendship  for suggestions.