How Kids Make and Keep Friends

Girl Friends
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Having best friends, playing with other children on the playground, and going to birthday parties and sleepovers are routine activities for most kids. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that "making friends is one of the most important missions of middle childhood—a social skill that will endure throughout their lives."

Some children, however, struggle socially and have trouble making and keeping friends.

Your child need not be a "social butterfly" and be well-liked by every kid at school. In fact, a shy or quiet child may just have one or two good friends and be very happy. But it can be a problem if your child doesn't have any friends or is never invited over to play with other children—especially if he seems anxious about this failure to connect with his peers.

Young Kids Making Friends

Even toddlers seem to play together and have friends, but group play doesn't usually evolve until age 3. Until then, most infants and younger toddlers simply play by themselves next to each other in parallel play.

After they begin playing together regularly as preschoolers, kids are more likely to make regular friends. The kids your younger child considers "friends" will likely change frequently. Even younger school-age children, until they are 10 to 12 years old, may have a new best friend every few months.

Does Your Child Have Friends?

It's often difficult for parents to know for sure if a child has any friends. If you aren't sure if your child has friends, talk to your child's teachers to see how she interacts with other kids at school. Is she always alone in the classroom, at lunch, or during recess?

You can simply ask your child about her friends and if she has a best friend, to get a better idea of how well she is making friends, too.

Helping Kids Make Friends

If your child doesn't have friends, it may simply be that he has not had enough opportunities to make them. Getting your child involved in plenty of activities with children of his same age and with similar interests can be a great way to find friends for your child.

Some good examples of places where your child may make friends include:

  • Youth sports and classes, including team sports (soccer, baseball, etc.) and individual sports (tennis, martial arts, etc.)
  • Noncompetitive activities, including music and art lessons, a chess club, etc.
  • Storytime at your library or bookstore
  • Other kids' clubs, including Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts
  • The park or playground

Bring an ice-breaker—such as a toy, pet, or snacks—to help draw other kids to your child when you go to the park or to other activities if your child is not naturally outgoing.

Kids Who Have Trouble Making Friends

If your child continues to struggle with making friends, consider inviting a child over for a play date and then closely observing what happens. Is your child too bossy, clingy, aggressive, touchy, or simply too shy to build a friendship with the child?

Does he do something that annoys the other kids? If so, see if you can talk to your child and help him do better next time. Role playing a play date, in which you pretend you are a friend who has come over to play with your child, can be a helpful way to teach your child more appropriate ways to act around other children.

Kids who continue to have problems making friends could have a medical condition affecting their social relationships. These medical conditions can include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety, and selective mutism (in which children don't talk to people outside their immediate family).

In fact, not being able to make and keep friends can be an important clue that your child needs help from a medical professional.

In addition to ADHD and the other medical conditions listed above, having trouble with friendships can also be a side effect or sign of depression, a learning disability, stress, or bullying.

What You Need to Know

Your pediatrician, a child psychologist, or a counselor can be good resources for help when your child continues to have problems making friends. Discussing friendships is also a good topic for your child's yearly well-child checkups with your pediatrician.

Be realistic about your expectations for your child and his friendships. If your child is shy and quiet, then he may be very happy with just one or two good friends and may not want or need a whole group of friends.

In general, kids usually have friends that are about the same age as they are. However, some prefer to be around older or younger children. For example, children with the hyperactive type of ADHD often end up making friends with much younger kids, since kids their own age don't like playing with them.

Gifted children often have problems making friends too, preferring to be around adults instead of kids who are their own age. These preferences can be a sign that your child is having problems making friends.

Don't push shy children to make friends or into social situations to make friends if it causes too much anxiety or if they aren't ready.

Sources:

American Academy of Pediatrics. Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12.

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