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It’s heart breaking when your child comes home and says ‘I’ve got nobody to play with’ and this week I’ve been working with a Mum around helping her child to make friends.

I think it helps to remember ( as well as helping you to relax) that children are not born innately knowing how to play together.

Social play is a skill that develops over time and is dependent on your child’s age and their stage of their development and maturity.

There’s no doubt that friendship is a critical childhood passage, as your child learns how to share, compromise, and work through misunderstandings with their friends. Yet the ups and downs of friendships can be hard for you to watch.

Most children will have their feelings hurt at some time, as they grow up but if you overreact you may make things worse and rob your child of the opportunity to sort things out for themselves.

Find that balance between intervening, interrupting and overprotecting.

Ways to Help Your Child Make Friends.

1. Relax your expectations.

Toddlers, and very young children, are egocentric (self centred) but at around three years of age children begin to develop more social, interactive play. They usually engage in Parallel Play, then at around three to four years of age Associative Play develops where your child will begin to interact and engage with others during play. At this age and stage they are slowly beginning to understand the concept of ‘friendship’ and wanting to play with others.

Expecting children at this stage to play complicated, co-operative, social games without adult support is probably expecting too much from them.

2. Support your child’s ‘Social Play’

Young children need adult support to be successful and confident in social situations. So it’s a good idea to be around when your child plays with other children for a little while to help them find the words and the ability to successfully join in, guiding, nurturing and supporting them when they are not sure and to help them when conflicts and arguments happen.
Don’t get trapped into becoming a totally over protective ‘helicopter parent’ but do be close by and step in if you need to at this stage of your child’s development.

3. Model Positive Social Behaviour

Children learn from you all the time, as they are watching, listening and learning from you constantly. So just model having fun with your own friends and family because your children will be picking up appropriate social behaviour from observing you. Try to be mindful to model positive social interactions and positive language though!

4. Stage Manage Success

Set up your home to make social play easy for your child. If your child is in the early stages of social play (parallel play) set up activities where they can play next to, but not necessarily with other children. Sometimes it feels like the children are ‘ignoring’ each other, but they are actually learning many important social skills from each other simply by playing along side each other which is gently building up their confidence too.

It’s a good idea to make sure that you have enough toys ( but don’t feel under pressure to create Toys R Us though) so that sharing and taking turns is easy, and a positive thing. If you only have 3 cars between 3 children no one will have enough which is frustrating and not conducive to the children co-operating.

5. Practice!

Help your child practice social skills and to develop friendships by organising to spend time with other children at a similar stage of development (who may or may not be the same age, because children all develop skills at different rates), and with similar interests.

Join a mother and toddler group, go to story time at the library, try out the ball pond at your local sports centre while they are still learning and practising taking turns, sharing and getting to know other children.

Encourage and create opportunities for social interaction so your child can practice.

Invite a friend and their children over for a coffee, so the kids can play together where you can keep a little eye on them. Keep the play date fairly short in the beginning and set up a few activities that you know both your children will enjoy so they are actively engaged and it’s a positive and enjoyable experience for everyone.

For older children read my article ‘How do kids make friends?’ 

Which stage of social play is your child at?

Have they started to form friendships with other children yet?

What ideas have you tried that work really well?