How to help kids make friends:

10 Evidence-based tips

© 2009 - 2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

How do kids make friends? Newborn babies are born ready to socialize, and no wonder: Throughout our evolutionary history, the ability to make friends has been a crucial survival skill.

But that doesn’t mean that marvelous good manners and irresistible charm will “just emerge” during your child’s development.

Decades of research suggests that parents play a big role in teaching children how to make friends. The most popular kids are prosocial—i.e., caring, sharing, and helpful. They also have strong verbal skills and know how to keep their selfish or aggressive impulses in check. Most of all, popular kids are good at interpersonal skills: empathy, perspective-taking, and moral reasoning (Slaughter et al 2002; Dekovic and Gerris 1994).

So it seems that making friends depends on skills that kids can develop with practice:

• conversational skills

• interpersonal skills

• emotional self-control

Here are some research-based tips to help kids make friends.

For an overview of friendship in children, see this article about the traits and parenting tactics that help kids make friends.

Tips to help kids make friends

1. Be an “emotion coach.”

Everybody has negative emotions and selfish impulses. But to make friends, we need to keep these responses under control. Studies of Western kids suggest that children develop better emotional self-control when their parents talk to them about their feelings in a sympathetic, problem-solving way.

By contrast, kids whose negative emotions are usually trivialized (“You’re just being silly”) or punished (“Go to your room and cool off”) tend to have more trouble with self-control (Davidov and Grusec 1996; Denham 1997; Denham et al 1997; Denham 1989; Denham and Grout 1993; Eisenberg et al 1996).

Does emotion coaching really help kids make friends? That seems likely. A recent study found that that the emotion socialization strategies mothers used on their 5-year-olds predicted changes in how well their children regulated their own emotions. This, in turn, was linked with children's friendship quality 2-5 years later (Blair et al 2013).

2. Practice authorative (not authoritarian) parenting

Studies of both Western and Chinese children report that kids are more likely to be rejected by their peers when their parents practice authoritarian parenting --an approach characterized by low levels of warmth and high levels of control.

Authoritarian parents discourage thoughtful discussion and attempt to control behavior through punishment. Kids raised this way are less likely to develop an internalized sense of right and wrong. And kids subjected to harsh punishments tend to show more hostility and aggression (Xu et al 2009; Chen and Rubin 1994).

Authoritative parenting is also characterized by high levels of control, in that parents set limits and demand maturity from their kids. But authoritative parents relate to their kids with warmth, and attempt to shape behavior through rational discussion and explanation of the reasons for rules.

Studies show that authoritative parents tend to have kids who are less aggressive, more self-reliant, more self-controlled, and better-liked by peers (Brotman et al 2009; Sheehan and Watson 2008; Hastings et al 2007).

What's cause and what's effect? It's possible that some kids are more inclined to be defiant, and these kids elicit more heavy-handed discipline from their parents. But it also seems likely that certain aspects of authoritative parenting--like the fostering of discussion, particularly discussion about emotions and social conflicts--might boost social skills and help kids make friends.

3. Teach kids how to converse in a polite way

The earliest lessons kids learn about communication happen at home, and it seems they make a difference. In a recent study tracking young children over a period of many years, Ruth Feldman and her colleagues found that parents who showed high levels of reciprocity in their communication with children had kids who developed more social competence and better negotiation skills over time (Feldman et al 2013).

But we can do more than engage kids in the give-and-take of family dialogue. We can also offer concrete advice about how to make new friends.

A number of experimental studies have reported that unpopular kids improve their status with peers after they’ve been trained in “active listening” (e.g., Bierman 1986). An active listener is someone who makes it clear he is paying attention--by making appropriate eye contact, orienting the body in the direction of the speaker, remaining quiet, and making relevant verbal responses.

In their book, Children's Friendship Training, Fred Frankel and Robert Myatt of the UCLA Semel Institute outline a formal program for grade school kids who have trouble making friends. One aspect of the program involves making conversation. Frankel and Myatt argue that kids need to practice the art of “trading information.” Tips to pass onto kids include:

• When starting a conversation with someone new, trade information about your “likes” and “dislikes.”

• Don’t be a conversation hog. When engaged in conversation, only answer the question at hand. Then give your partner a chance to talk, or ask a question of your own.

• Don’t be an interviewer. Don’t just ask questions. Offer information about yourself.

Frankel and Myatt suggest that kids practice their conversational skills by making phone calls to each other.

For kids struggling to make friends, avoid competitive games and other situations that can provoke conflict or discourage cooperation

Several studies suggest that kids get along better when they are engaged in cooperative activities—i.e., activities in which kids work toward a common goal (Roseth et al 2008). This is true in the classroom, and it’s also true when kids play. For example, one study compared how 4th grade boys behaved during competitive and cooperative games. During cooperative games, unpopular boys were less disruptive and behaved with greater maturity. Popular boys showed greater tolerance (Gelb and Jacobson 1988).

Based on such findings, Fred Frankel and Robert Myatt recommend that parents steer kids away from competitive games, at least until kids develop better social skills (Frankel and Myatt 2002).

Got a play date? Frankel and Myatt also recommend that parents plan ahead and put away toys that discourage social interaction or provoke fighting. That means putting away toy weapons. It also means putting away toys designed for solitary play or which inspire self-absorption, like video games. And if your child can’t bear to share something, it’s best to hide it until the play date is over.

4. Foster empathy and sympathetic concern for others.

Although even babies shown signs of empathy, I think it’s a mistake to imagine that full-blown empathy will “just emerge” if you leave kids alone. Here are some tips for fostering empathy, perspective-taking, and sympathy in kids.

5. Help kids “read” facial expressions.

You might think that interpreting facial expressions is a “no-brainer,” but experiments suggest that elementary school children can benefit from practice. Read more about it, and about specific activities kids can try to practice reading faces.

6. Coach kids on how to cope with tricky social situations.

Let’s get really specific. If you see some children playing and you want to join them, how do you go about it? Victoria Finnie and Alan Russell presented mothers with several hypothetical scenarios and then asked these mothers what advice they would give their preschool children (Finnie and Russell 1988). The researchers discovered the mothers that gave out the best advice were the moms with the most socially-adept kids. What did the moms say?

• Before making your approach, watch what the other kids are doing. What can you do to fit in?

• Try joining the game by doing something relevant. For example, if kids are playing a restaurant game, see if you can become a new customer.

• Don’t be disruptive or critical or try to change the game.

• If the other kids don’t want you to join in, don’t try to force it. Just back off and find something else to do.

7. Monitor kids’ social life

Studies in a variety of cultures suggest that children are better off when their parents monitor their social activities (Parke et al 2002). This doesn’t mean hovering over kids or getting in the middle of every peer interaction (see below). But it does mean supervising where kids play and helping kids choose their friends. Research supports the idea of “bad influences.” In one study, primary school kids who named more aggressive peers as their friends were more likely to develop behavioral problems over time (Mrug et al 2004). And kids with behavior problems are more likely to get rejected by their peers.

8. When possible, let kids try to work things out on their own

Young toddlers need to be closely supervised. But as kids get older, parents need to back off. Parents who hover over their kids are robbing them of the chance to develop their own social skills (Ladd and Golter 1988).

9. Watch out for bullying

One exception to the dictum “let kids work it out for themselves” is bullying. Bullying isn’t a healthy part of childhood, and expects agree that adults need to get involved. For more information, see these evidence-based articles on understanding and preventing bullying.

10. Be aware of cultural differences

Most of research I’ve cited was conducted in Western countries. Do the same rules of friendship apply in all cultures? Yes and no. Reciprocity isn't just a human universal. It has been observed in nonhuman primate relationships. And I’d expect most people to agree that irritable, disruptive, domineering, dishonest or selfish people aren’t desirable as friends. It’s also safe to say that kindness, helpfulness, sympathy, and loyalty are valued everywhere.

But when it comes to defining traits like “selfish” or “helpful,”cultures may differ by degrees. A study of six cultures found that kids in Kenya, Mexico, and the Philippines spent significantly more time doing kindnesses for others than did kids in Japan, India or the United States (Whiting and Whiting 1973).

People in different cultures may also interpret behavior differently. For instance, suppose your friend flunked a math test, whereas you got an A+. Should you tell her about your success? In a recent cross-cultural study, American school kids said that doing so would seem like boasting. But Chinese school children viewed the matter differently. To them, sharing information about success with an unsuccessful friend would send the message “I can help you do better” (Heyman et al 2008).


References: How to help kids make friends

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