Most adults can remember their very first best friend. Early-childhood friendships can be very special and teach a lot about life.
And that’s probably why parents can get a little nervous if they don’t think their child is making friends fast enough. If you’re one of those caregivers, take a deep breath and know that making friends is a very personalized thing and each child makes friends at their own pace.
That being said, here are a few constants you can look to when it comes to preschoolers making friends and some suggestions on how you can help them develop these very special bonds.
(Note: All of the advice offered in this post is for neurotypical children. If you’re the parent of a neurodiverse child — one who has autism, is on the spectrum, has ADHD, or has other developmental differences — these tips may not be effective or work at all. Check out the resources at Autism Speaks or the CDC for advice that may help you more.)
Parents: Manage Your Expectations
Not all children are made equal. How quickly and easily a child makes friends is unique to them. So, remember two things:
- Kids only need one or two good friends.
- Kids aren’t really capable of creating true friendships until they are at least 3 years old.
The experts at Stanford Health tell parents to keep three things in mind as they evaluate how well your child is making friends: temperament, developmental level, and avoiding comparison. All three will have enormous influence on how quickly and easily your child will form friendships.
Here are some things to keep in mind as you help your child navigate the complexities of friend-making.
- Model Positive Social Behavior – Just like everything in their lives, preschoolers are looking to their parents, guardians, and adult role models for guidance on how to make friends. Be friendly, respectful, and cooperative to the people in your life, and make sure your kids see it.
- Teach Basic Social Skills – Sometimes the hardest part is just knowing how to say hello. Walk your child through an easy-to-remember greeting, such as, “Hi, my name is Allen. What’s your name? Would you like to play with me?” Additionally, practice basic social skills, such as sharing, taking turns, and saying “please” and “thank you.” It’s never too early to start!
- Foster Empathy & Kindness – Good relationships are built on a foundation of understanding, kindness, and empathy. As early as communication is possible with your child, help them observe and consider the feelings and perspectives of others. Encourage them to help others, be inclusive, and show empathy when someone is upset.
- Teach Conflict Resolution Skills – From the moment we can express, “Hey, that’s mine,” conflict between people is going to happen. So help your kiddo develop conflict resolution skills early. That might sound complicated, but it’s really intuitive if you start early. The concepts are as simple as communicating their needs, listening to others, and finding compromises. Encourage them to use words to express their feelings instead of resorting to aggressive behavior.
- Support Independence – Don’t be a helicopter/bulldozer parent. Encourage your child to take initiative in making friends and resolving social conflicts. Learning how to navigate social situations will boost their confidence and give them the social skills that making friends naturally provides.
Looking for books to read with your children about making friends? Check out this list curated by PBS!
Where to Find Friends
If making friends is important for preschoolers, then where can parents take them to get started? Here are a few suggestions.
- Preschool! – Places like Little Sunshine’s Playhouse & Preschool are some of the best locations for children to make friends. Smaller groups with organized activities give kids the perfect opportunity to meet children their own age and have fun interacting with them.
- Local Parks & Playgrounds – Get outside to make some friends! Local parks and playgrounds are great gathering spots for kids. These settings provide a mix of ages, too, so your child will learn how to interact with children older, younger, and the same age as them.
- Community Centers – Many community centers offer programs and activities specifically designed for preschoolers. Enroll your child in classes like art, music, or sports.
- Libraries – Libraries are often the hub of a community. Attend a storytime session or other activity at your local library branch. Especially if you have a shy child, low-key activities at a library may be just what you’re looking for.
- Sports or Recreational Programs – These programs usually focus on the basics of more complex activities, such as soccer, gymnastics, or swimming. But regardless of whether or not your child continues sports in elementary, middle, or high school, it will burn off some energy and give them the chance to make friends.
- Religious Centers – Whether it’s a church, synagogue, or mosque, religious centers usually have programs or events tailored for preschoolers. These can include Sunday School, playgroups, or community events that provide opportunities for children to meet and interact.
And as you sit and wait for your child to get done playing, don’t forget to take these opportunities to make friends yourself! This is a great chance for you to show your child what making friends looks like.
Making friends takes time and effort, especially for preschoolers who are still developing their social skills. Be patient and supportive. They’ll eventually get the hang of it! Every child is unique, and the way they make friends will be just as individualized. Before you know it, they’ll be begging for their new best friend to come over and play.