Teaching Kids Friendship-Making Skills

by Michele Borba

childhood friendsLet'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 at an early age. 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. Kids 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.

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.

Four Proven Ways to Help Kids Learn Friendship-Making Skills

These next steps show you how to teach your child any skill you think he needs to enhance help him get along with others. The examples are based on one of my clients to help you see how to apply the strategy.

Zoe's father volunteered to go on the class field trip to see for himself if the other kids really were as mean to his daughter as she said. Just sitting in the back of the bus and watching how Zoe interacted with the other girls convinced him he wasn't hearing the whole story. He instantly saw how bossy she was, and how she always bulldozed herself into groups without watching to see what the other kids were doing. She was obviously turning the other girls off. Now that he knew her problem, how could he help her change?

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 taught specific friendship-making skills. You can use the same steps 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. Here's how Zoe's father taught his daughter new social skills.

Step One: Focus on a Skill Your Child Lacks

waiting impatiently to join the gameLook over the Friendship Building Skills Test and choose one skill your child lacks. Choose the easiest one to teach!

Zoe's father knew his daughter needed to learn many skills: she was bossy, used a loud voice, argued frequently, didn't take turns, and played too aggressively. The first thing he needed to help her learn was to wait and watch the group, before barging in.

Friendship-Making Skills: Here are a few top friendship-making skills that researchers say are critical to our children's social competence (and ALL are teachable):

  • Apologizing
  • Sharing and taking turns
  • Bouncing back
  • Problem solving
  • Etiquette and manners
  • Suggesting an activity
  • Identifying and expressing your emotions
  • Sticking up for yourself
  • Expressing feelings
  • Accepting criticism and being teased
  • Compromising
  • Negotiating
  • 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

Step Two: Coach Your Child in This Skill

Find a private moment to model the new skill to your child. Talk with her about why the skill is important, and then be sure she can show you how to do the skill correctly. It's helpful to go with your child 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.

Remember: Kids learn skills best when you SHOW not TELL them what it looks like. You can also help your child look for the skill on a television show or movie ("Let's look for kids who introduce themselves to a new group.")

Zoe's father took his daughter to a park pretending he wanted her to play ball with her. He really wanted to point out how kids joining new groups watch before barging in. He found a spot to throw her the ball near a group of kids playing baseball.

As soon as a new child walked up to their group, he quietly said, "Hey, Zoe, see the girl with the braids over there? She looks like she's trying to play ball with the group."

When he had Zoe's attention he added, "Watch her to see what she does first; it looks like she's waiting before barging in." Zoe paused to watch.

Her father added, "Wow, she's still standing there. I guess she's waiting for the end of the inning before asking if she can play. That's a great idea, because kids don't like to be interrupted during a game."

Step Three: Provide Opportunities to Practice the Skill

Just telling your child about the skill is not enough. Your child needs to try out the skill with other children. The best kids for your child to practice with are kids she doesn't already know and are younger or less skilled. Then keep the practice session short, and stand back at a comfortable distance! If your child is having problems in the group, offer suggestions only privately -- never in front of other kids.

The next day Zoe went straight to the baseball diamond with her dad. Her father figured this would be a good place for Zoe to practice waiting before barging in since she didn't know the girls and was a pretty good baseball player. If the kids let her on the team, Zoe would feel comfortable playing.

"Remember, what you're going to do, Zoe," said her dad. "Yeah," Zoe said, "I'm going to first watch what the kids are doing and see which side's not winning, because they'll probably need me most. I'll wait until the end of an inning before asking."

"Sounds good," admitted her father. "Why don't you try it? The worse that can happen is they'll say no. If they do, just walk away without saying anything."

Step Four: Review the Practice and Offer Feedback

Child development experts, Oden and Asher, discovered that a critical part of teaching social skills is evaluating the child's performance with her. 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. 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. Gradually your child's social competence will grow.

Zoe stuck to their plan and was asked to play second base. When the game ended, she and her dad went for ice cream and reviewed how things went. "Looks like you had a good time, Zoe. How do you think it went?," her dad asked.

"Pretty good," Zoe admitted, "but it was hard waiting that long."

"Yes, but you did it, Zoe. Kids like it more if you don't barge in on them if they're already playing a game. Next time we'll practice saying nice things to the kids while you're playing. Kids like that, too."

Don't Give Up!

Remember: it takes a minimum of 21 days for children to learn a new skill, so continue helping your child rehearse the skill until she can use the skill in real life with peers. 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 plays an enormous part of your child's self-esteem and success. Don't give up!

Michele BorbaMichele Borba, Ed.D., is an educational psychologist, former teacher, and mom who is recognized for offering research-driven advice culled from a career of working with over one million parents, educators, and children. A frequent Today show contributor she also appears on Dr. Phil, The View, CNN American Morning, and The Early Show, Michele is the author of 22 books including her latest release, "The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries." Visit her daily blog.

Copyright © Michele Borba. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org. Image © Shannon Pifko.