By Gail Belsky
Making new friends (and meeting up with old ones) is one of the most exciting things about starting a new school year, but it can also be one of the scariest. Every year, kids worry about the same issues: Who will I play with on the playground? What if nobody likes me? How am I going to make friends? And sometimes, they have a new worry: Why don’t my old friends want to play with me anymore?
“Over the summer, younger children often change,” says child psychologist Andrea Weiner, author of The Best Investment: Unlocking the Secrets of Social Success for Your Child. “Their interests change and they may play with other people. Kids need to understand that friends don’t always remain friends.”
While you can’t micromanage your child’s social life, Weiner says there are ways that you can help him reach out to other children and forge the friendships that are right for him. The key is to understand what drives children’s friendships in the first place … and to listen to what your child is saying about his.
For Younger Kids
At this age, friendship is primarily based on shared interests, and kids often have many friends who are loosely connected because of what they like to do together. If your child has discovered a new game, but his friends haven’t, he may move away from them in search of kids who play it. The same works in reverse: Your child might find that the other kids have shifted interests and moved away from him.
What you can do:
Listen before you do anything, and avoid using the word “should,” says Weiner. Showing empathy is far more helpful to your child than telling him what to do. Ask questions like, “I can see that you’re worried about recess. What’s going on?” Help him identify other potential friends: “If you were looking for a friend, what would you want him to be like? Do you like kids who are silly or funny?” Then help him come up with a strategy for making new friends who share similar interests: “How do you think you can talk to that boy and see if he wants to play with you?” Reassure your child that friendships take time to form.
For Older Kids
Friendship takes a new form around age 9 or 10. Instead of having a loosely connected group, older kids start paring down their circle of friends. They still seek out kids who share their interests, but now they want to share other things, too. Girls in particular look for more personal connections; they want “best” friends, not just casual pals. At this age, kids are also concerned about fitting in — and not standing out! (There’s nothing worse than showing up with the wrong outfit or a bad haircut.) Starting conversations with new friends can be especially tricky.
What you can do:
When you’re doing your back-to-school wardrobe shopping, look for some trendy styles (as long as they’re appropriate, of course). It’s important to encourage your child to be his own person and honor his individuality, but when in doubt, going with styles that many of the other kids are wearing will make him feel like part of the group. “Kids feel a great anxiety about making friends,” says Weiner. “Why put an extra burden on them?” You can also help your child think up some conversation starters about social things like clothes, movies, sports, even music. Try questions like, “I like your sneakers; where’d you get them?”; “Do you like that new song by so-and-so?”; and “Who’s your favorite soccer player?” It may seem superficial to you, but to your child, it’s the language of making friends.
Gail Belsky has worked on a variety of women’s publications, including Parents, Working Mother and All You, and she recently wrote a book for women titled The List: 100 Ways to Shake Up Your Life. She is the managing editor of Your Family Today.
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