By Chris Croll
We all know a good friend can lift our spirits when we are down, but did you know that strong social connections can also help you live longer? Studies show that feeling isolated from others not only elevates blood pressure, increases depression and disrupts sleep but new research suggests that a lack of social connections can be deadlier than smoking cigarettes. Don’t believe me? Ask Dr. Google.
If strong social connections are so important to our well-being as adults, how can we teach good friend-making skills to our children when they are young? Here some of the key components to building successful relationships and how parents can teach and model skills in each area.
Reading social cues: When a child approaches another child, it’s important that the initiating child has the skills to “read” the body language and facial expressions of the prospective friend. Do they look open to conversation or play or are is the other child heads-down reading a book or listening to music with earbuds in their ears? Parents can help kids develop skills to decipher social cues by practicing how to identify the signs of someone who looks open to connecting.
Determining fit: The foundation of many friendships is a set of common interests. Help your child identify the activities he/she enjoys doing with others, a list of personality traits that are a good fit for your child and other characteristics that can help your child to determine whether a potential friend may be a good fit for them.
Initiating play: One of the hardest components of making friends is taking the first step towards initiating contact. Support your child in an age-appropriate way by going with them (or standing nearby) when they approach a potential friend. To prep them for these encounters, have your child watch how you initiate friendly conversation with people you meet. If your child is very shy, there are YouTube videos that do a good job of demonstrating how children can initiate, join in and sustain play with other children.
Exerting influence:Once a child has started communicating with a prospective friend, they may need coaching on how to exert influence for what the kids play and how they play. Work with your child to develop cooperation skills like taking turns, sharing, validating the ideas of others, etc. Play board games with your child to demonstrate good “play manners” such as letting the other person have the first turn or letting others determine the rules of a game. It’s equally important for your child to learn how to make suggestions without sounding bossy or overbearing.
Managing conflict: Social problem-solving skills are important at any age but can be particularly valuable for children to master at a young age. “Use your words,” has become common parlance when teaching younger children how to resolve conflict without getting physical but it’s important for parents to help children to learn the right words to use at every age. This is where it behooves us parents to model good conflict resolution skills at home.
Maintaining relations: After a child makes a new friend, they must learn how to nurture the relationship, so it can grow and flourish. Friendships take work to keep them strong. Encourage your child to visit, call, email, text, write or otherwise maintain contact with the new friend they made. For younger children, parents can manage setting up follow-up play dates. With older children, parents can coach their child on when and how to follow up with the new friend to keep the social momentum going. Parents can also incorporate coaching about safe and healthy social media use since so many young people stay connected with friends via Snapchat, Instagram, texting and other digital media.
Summer is an ideal time for parents to help their children learn and practice these and other social skills. Mastering the art of making friends can lead to healthy connections for your kids now and later in life.
Chris Croll is a parenting consultant specializing in educating and raising gifted and twice-exceptional children. She leads the National Center for Gifted Services (NationalCenterforGiftedServices.com) and the nonprofit Loudoun County Parents of Gifted Students (LoCoPOGS.org).