Friendship Matters: Helping Kids Make and Keep Friends

by | Oct 13, 2013 | Emotional Intelligence, Friendship and Social Competence, Self-Confidence, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions

Research-based steps to boost children’s social-emotional learning and help them acquire crucial friendship-making skills to fit in, be less-likely to be excluded and bullied, and more content with life!  Let’s face it, some kids just seem to make friends easily. They’re invited to all the birthday parties, attend the sleep-overs, are chosen first for teams, and are sought after as everyone’s friend. If we could peek into their future, we’d see them continuing to succeed socially throughout their school years, as well as for the rest of their lives.

Child psychologists find popular kids have one thing in common: they’ve learned the skills of social competence. 

Like most skills, the skills of friendship are refined through trial and error. So, the more opportunities kids have to try out what works with others and what doesn’t, the greater likelihood social competence will develop. That puts a lot of kids at a disadvantage. Children who hang back and are shy, kids who haven’t had many social experiences, kids who never learned these first critical friendship-making steps, or kids who have poor social models to copy are kids handicapped from developing the skills of  social competence. Not knowing how to join a group or meet new friends will haunt them the rest of their lives. As well-liked kids continue practicing their social skills, kids lacking the skills will continue to lag socially behind others. Finally, the pain of social rejection will set in and affect our children far more than we may realize. But don’t despair!

Hidden Value of Teaching Social Skills: Friends Help Kids Ward Off the Blues

New research from Concordia University, Florida Atlantic University and the University of Vermont puts the importance of helping our children learn friendship-making skills up a notch.

The three-year study, reported in the journal Development and Psychopathology, involved a total of 130 girls and 101 boys in the third and fifth grades. It found that peers typically reject those kids with poorer social skills or perceived as overly aggressive or immature. Researchers also found that friends can serve as a form of protection against sadness for our kids. Put another way, your child’s pals can protect at-risk children from depression and anxiety.

Lead author, William M. Bukowski, states: “The long-term effects of being a withdrawn child are enduringly negative. Over time, we found that withdrawn kids showed increasing levels of sadness and higher levels of depressive feelings. Have one friend can be protective for withdrawn or shy kids. Our study confirms the value of having friends, which are like a shield against negative social experiences.”

The good news is that social skills can easily be taught. Studies from UCLA and Duke University –as well as countless of other child development institutions–prove that even children with the lowest skills in social competence can be helped. And teaching those skills can do nothing but enhance children’s social confidence and expand their potential interpersonal fulfillment. These next steps show you how to teach your child any skill you think he needs to help him get along with others. I taught special education for years and had a private clinic for at risk youth. When it came to social skill development I turned to researchers who proved what worked.

Child development experts, Sherri Oden and Steven Asher, worked for years with children who had problems fitting in. They discovered their social successes dramatically improved when they were taught specific friendship-making skills. You can use the same steps, based on Oden and Asher’s research, to help your child learn any social skill.

By teaching your child one new skill at a time and practicing it over and over until she can use it on her own, you can help your child make new friends and improve her social confidence.

How to Teach Friendship-Making Skills to Children and Teens


STEP ONE: Focus on One Friendship Skill Your Child Lacks

One of my client’s knew that his daughter needed to learn friendship making skills. His child was always rejected and coming home in tears saying, “Nobody liked her.” But dad didn’t know what skills to teach. I suggested he volunteer to go on the desk field trip with his daughter’s class and watch (from a distance) how she interacted with peers. He instantly saw why his daughter was excluded–she didn’t take turns and needed to learn not to barge in as well as encourage others. The first thing he needed to help his daughter learn was to wait and watch the group before barging in.  

Tune into your child a little closer when he or she is in a social setting. Is there one skill that you can help your child learn?

Here are a few top friendship-making skills that researchers say are critical to our children’s social competence and ALL are teachable. 

Essential Friendship Making Skills

 Eye contact, Listening to a conversation,, Resolving conflicts, Introducing self, Meeting new people, Starting a conversation, Joining in, Handling rejection, Staying calm, Saying no, Encouraging, Asking permission, Apologizing, Sharing and taking turns, Bouncing back, Problem solving, Etiquette and manners (Saying thank you, please, excuse me),  Suggesting an activity, Identifying and expressing your emotions, Sticking up for yourself, Expressing feelings, Accepting criticism and being teased, Compromising, Negotiating.

The list goes on but choose the one skill your child needs.

My book, Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me provides the top 25 friendship-making skills and how to teach them. Each chapter has a chart in picture form that you can use to help your child learn the skill.

STEP TWO: Coach the New Friendship Skill

TIP:  Show – don’t tell- the skill. Kids learn skills best when you SHOW–not TELL–them what it looks like.

This next step is crucial. Your child must learn a new way to interact successfully with others. How you present the skill is critical as to whether or not the child will try it or learn it. So…

Find a private moment to model the new skill to your child. Talk about why the skill is important, and then be sure your child can show you how to do the skill correctly. Go to a public place such as a playground or school yard, so she can observe other kids actually using the skill.

Seeing the skill in action helps your child copy it, so she can try it on her own. Be creative in helping your child learn the new skill. The key is don’t lecture your child about what you’re trying to help him learn. Instead show it or point it out in context. And then help your child actually practice doing the skill.

Here are a few strategies I’ve suggested to parents to help kids learn a new skill:

  • Model the skill yourself so your child sees you using it in real life.
  • Point out if another child is doing the skill (on a playground at the park)
  • Look for a character using the skill on a TV show or movie.
  • Have “teddy bear” practice with “Peter Rabbit.”
  • Role play or play act the skill out.
  • Ask your child to teach another child.
  • Video record your child the moment he uses the skill in the family and then replay it to show him.
  • Skype the skill with Grandma (like practicing a conversation skill).
  • Help your child look for the skill in real life: “Let’s look for kids who introduce themselves to a new group.”

STEP THREE: Provide Practice (and lots of it!)

Just telling your child about the skill is not enough. Your child needs to try out the skill with other children. Without the practice session your child will never be able to feel comfortable using the new friendship making skill out there in the real world. The third step is to find fun ways for your child to rehearse the skill until he can finally use it without adult guidance.

Research at Stanford University finds that the best kids for your child to practice with are peers she doesn’t already know, those who are younger or those less skilled.

Remember, your child will feel awkward trying anything new with kids he knows.

       7 Ways to Help Kids Practice a New Skill

Look for a younger cousin, the kid next door, the kid at the park. (Once your child practices (and practices and practices) he will be better able to use the skill with his own peer group).

Keep the practice session short. Don’t overwhelm your child. 

Keep the session fun–this isn’t meant to be a tutoring session like learning math facts!

Stand back at a comfortable distance to give your child comfort.

If your child is having problems in the group, offer suggestions, but only privately–never in front of other kids. Preserve his dignity!

Make sure you practice the sessions at home. Repetition is crucial for learning. 

Get other family members involved so they can model the skill to your child.

STEP FOUR: Review Practice Session and Offer Feedback

Child development experts, Oden and Asher, discovered that a critical part of teaching social skills is evaluating the child’s performance together. The evaluation process (quick and brief), helped the child process and learn the skill. So see yourself as a coach — best ones always replay the skill and show athletes exactly what they did right or wrong. That step is crucial in boosting performance. As soon as you can, discuss how the practice session went asking questions such as:

  • How did it go?
  • What did you say?
  • How do you think you did?
  • What would you do differently next time?

Don’t criticize what your child didn’t do, instead praise what your child did right or any new attempt. Change is difficult! Acknowledge success..the little efforts and the small gains.  

If your child wasn’t successful, talk through what didn’t go well, so she can try it differently the next time. As soon as your child feels comfortable with the skill, you’re ready to teach another one.

Remember: one friendship skill at a time. Gradually your child’s social competence will grow.

Don’t Give Up!

Studies show that it takes a minimum of 21 days for children–and adults!–to learn a new skill. Continue helping your child rehearse the skill until she can transfer (or use) the skill in real life with peers. Acknowledge efforts–any little ones–this is tough stuff and your child needs reinforcement. 

If you do not see change, your child’s self-esteem plummets, or you notice a marked change in your child’s personality (she pulls back, withdraws, acts out, lacks focus, etc), then seek help! Many counselors are trained in social skill development and can offer solutions.

Friendship making groups may be available in your area in which a trained mental health profession facilitates helping kids learn these essential skills. Friendship plays an enormous part of your child’s self-esteem and success. Don’t overlook this part of your child’s world. 

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba or on my daily blog Dr. Borba’s Reality Check.

For more strategies to help boost children’s social competence refer to my book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries in the chapters Bad Friends, Bullied, Bullying, Cliques, Friend Breakups, Peer Pressure, Rejected in my book Nobody Likes Me: Everybody Hates Me – 25 Top Friendship Problems and How to Solve Them.