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Feb 22, 2006
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How to help your child build relationships with her peers

By the editors of Parenting magazine


Your child's social development begins from the moment she enters the world — think of the adorable gazing, smiles, and coos. But her first real friendships won't begin until the toddler years. Here's what you need to know about your child's social development, age-by-age, and how to help her build positive relationships with her peers.

Your baby's first friend: You
After being thrust into the bright, loud world, your baby relies on you as her main source of comfort — partly because she can already recognize your voice from hearing it in the womb. Faces are also an important part of an infant's social experience. Experts aren't sure why, but babies seem to be genetically programmed to recognize and be attracted to faces, even those in illustrations, photographs, or videos. One study showed that newborns pay much closer attention to a drawing of a face with the eyes, mouth, and nose in their proper places than to a drawing in which the facial elements are scrambled.

Your words are also crucial to your baby, even if she can't understand them at first. Learning to make sense of language is one of the most important social-development factors. You can be sure that every time you speak to your child, she's listening intently to make sense of the meaning.

How social skills develop, age by age
1-year-olds: It's all about self-control
At this age, your child's friends will be the ones whose moms or dads you know. But just because he sees these children regularly doesn't mean he'll willingly give up his bear or stacking rings for them to play with. Kids this age don't yet understand the concept of sharing, and they think that whatever is in their hands belongs to them. So you'll have to step in and help your child share on playdates.

2-year-olds: It's all about giving them words
Most toddlers have learned to speak well enough that parents can begin to teach them some phrases that will help them express their feelings. Then they won't have to hit or grab as much, for instance. Still, it's a good idea to limit playdates to about an hour and vary the activities so the kids can wind down by coloring or reading a book. That can prevent meltdowns. It's also smart to stick around to smooth out any altercations. Another trick: Use a kitchen timer and let the kids take turns playing with certain toys.

3-year-olds: It's all about nurturing friendships
Once they're in preschool, children can find a buddy without much encouragement from you. It may be another child who has a similar interest or laughs at the same things he does, or it could be someone with a totally opposite personality. It's hard to predict which of these early relationships will last longer than a school year, but the chances are better with support from both sets of parents. An enjoyable outing with that child's whole family can strengthen the bond even more.

4-year-olds: It's all about widening circles
Kids at this age begin to see themselves as part of a more complex social scene. They'll start to form groups, although these aren't by any means cliques — they're pretty fluid. Your child may not know how to join a group, whether it's his classmates at school or a bunch of children at the playground. You can start by giving him some words, such as "Hi, I'm Larry, and I'd like to play too." Or you can encourage him to come up with an idea for a game or to think of ways he can fit into one that's in progress. He can offer to be "It" or anything else that will make the other kids want to include him.

5-year-olds: It's all about refining their skills
By kindergarten, most children are social beings, with a range of friends they cherish and who cherish them. Though they're perfectly able to pick their own playmates, they still need to learn how to assert themselves and choose buddies who treat them well and make them feel good. Your child may be playing a lot with someone who never lets him take the lead, for example. This is an age at which you can begin to talk to kids about what that feels like and what kind of friendships they'd like to have instead. Teach your child phrases that can help him get what he wants, such as "It's my turn to be the leader" or "I want to be first today." Or tell him he can try playing with someone else who's better at turn-taking.

The importance of parallel play
Researchers have noted that toddlers form strong emotional attachments to certain playmates, becoming excited when they see them. But it takes a while for babies to reach that level of socialization. Place two infants next to each other and, after some initial excitement and curiosity, they will probably ignore each other, unless one of them starts to cry and triggers the same response in the second child. While the children may be physically close, each seems to be pursuing her own agenda. Even their "conversation" reflects this split. Their words sound like two independent monologues rather than a dialogue. ("Big truck." "I pet the puppy." "Vroom, vroom." "Bad dog!")

This type of parallel play, as it is known, is the beginning of more complex peer relationships. A few years down the road, your child will discover that friendship is a kind of laboratory in which she'll experiment on handling emotions and practicing new skills. And the interactions she has had with you through speech, play, and even just cuddling will have provided the foundation for successful, long-lasting friendships.

Helping a shy child make friends
Before you try to do your little one a favor by setting up lots of playdates, remember it's not the number of pals your child has that's important. One or two close ones will be enough to help him feel more comfortable about friendships. To help kids navigate their social world a little more easily:

Birth to 3 years
Do: Set a foundation by organizing playgroups with other babies or toddlers. This will let your child learn to feel comfortable when interacting with new people.

Don't: Overwhelm him with too many social occasions. Little ones need downtime, too.

3 to 5 years
Do: Set a loose agenda for playdates — it'll make your preschooler feel less anxious. For example, have him choose two games he'd like to play, and tell him to give his guest these options when she arrives.

Don't: Invite too many kids over for too long a time. One child for one hour is plenty to start with.

5 to 8 years
Do: Find a noncompetitive activity that plays to your grade-schooler's strengths, such as art or dance classes, Boy Scouts, or martial arts. If the group is small, he's more likely to find like-minded kids he can be pals with.

Don't: Insist that your child's friends be the same age. A younger buddy can make a shy child feel more socially comfortable and competent.

8 to 12 years
Do: Talk to your child's teacher, who can pair him up with supportive classmates when working on projects. You can also encourage your preteen to tutor a younger child. It's a great way to develop the skills he needs for other social interactions.

Don't: Ask your tween whether he's made any friends at school. A socially withdrawn child often wishes he weren't, and frequent comments about friendships will just make him more anxious.

Your top playdate problems — solved
Someone won't share: One strong-willed child is an interesting challenge. Two strong-willed children makes for a tough playdate. So play matchmaker. Maybe your bossy girl is more comfortable playing with kids who are younger and will let her call the shots. Or perhaps she finds it easier to play with older kids, who are indisputably in charge. While playdates are a way to teach sharing, there's no need to make them extra hard by having two kids with personalities that don't match.

Somebody's left out: When it's a one-on-one playdate, this won't happen. But add another kid to the mix and it can be a different story. To make sure everyone plays together, lay down the law beforehand. Tell your kids that you want them to include everyone and play nicely. Ask that other parents do the same. A heads-up can go a long way toward averting hurt feelings.

Your child can't say goodbye: You think you're dropping your child off at a playdate but she clutches your leg in a viselike grip? To help her adjust, try making the transition more fun. Give your child toys or snacks she can show and share with her friends right away. You can also play for a minute or two to give her time to settle in.

Buddy breakups
Sadly, it's inevitable that at some point, your child will get dumped by a pal. When it happens, here's what you can do to help her feel better:

Be sympathetic. This is a big deal to her, so don't minimize or dismiss what she's feeling. Let her know you're there to listen, and even share a story from your own past.

Don't badmouth the other kid. It's tempting, but try to stay above the fray and let the kids work it out. (For one thing, it'll be awkward if your child ends up being friends with her again.)

Go over what happened. Sometimes kids don't realize that they may have played a role in the demise of a friendship. Ask if they had a fight or if the friend seemed angry recently.

Talk up friendship. A true friend doesn't just abandon someone for the sake of being thought of as "cooler." Remind your child of this and encourage her to shift her focus to more loyal pals.

When your child's at fault:
  • Let her know you're not happy with the way she handled things.
  • Ask him how he would feel if he were treated that way.
  • Point out that kids won't want to be friends with someone who's untrustworthy.
  • Remind your child that you still expect her to be nice to everybody.
It takes time and practice for kids to build friendships. Until he starts making friends on his own, your child's many social interactions — with you, and with his peers — will give him all the skills he needs to be a great pal. And over time, he'll likely gravitate, as most of us do, to the people he has fun with and the ones who really care about him.


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