Nine-month-old Nicole* smiles at the other babies in her playgroup and babbles happily. She already enjoys spending time with her peers. Nicole will continue to lay the foundation for many social skills over the next three to four years. In fact, learning to get along with others will be one of her most important tasks as a young child.
Unfortunately, some children have problems forming relationships with their peers. They may lack social skills and be rejected or bullied. These problems can continue into school and beyond. These children are more likely to have trouble getting along with classmates and may do poorly in school. In their teen years, they may suffer from loneliness, depression and anxiety.
There are a number of reasons why some children find it hard to make friends. Their family’s culture or financial situation can set them apart from others. They may be too aggressive or withdrawn from others in social settings. Some children have not learned the social skills needed to make friends. Physical and mental disabilities may also play a role.
The good news is that parents can help children learn skills to overcome these problems.
Provide opportunities to socialize.
Playing with other children is the best way to learn and practice social skills. Children with weaker social skills can learn from peers with stronger skills. Learning to imitate other children is in itself a valuable skill that will help them socially. Children with disabilities benefit from socializing with children without disabilities.
Encourage communication skills.
Children who can communicate with their peers find it easier to form relationships. By age one, many children use nonverbal cues to communicate. For example: Nicole wants to show her friend the colourful fish in the aquarium. She touches her friend’s arm and then points to the fish. Together they watch the fish swim around the aquarium. As children get older, verbal communication becomes more important. Parents can help their child learn this skill by:
- speaking to her continually throughout the day
- keeping books and magazines in the places where she plays
- reading aloud to her, talking about the pictures in the book
- encouraging pretend play
- providing rich experiences such as going to the park, stores, museums and talking about them.
Help children learn to be in charge oftheir emotions.
The first step in controlling emotions is to recognize them and name them. Parents can talk to their child about their feelings. “You seem to be angry that we have to leave the park now. I feel frustrated because we need to get to our appointment on time.” Sing songs (e.g., If you’re happy and you know it… If you’re sad and you know it…) and read stories that name feelings. Parents can be good role models by controlling and talking through their emotions aloud.