Forming Friendships from toddler to teen

By Kerrie McLoughlin

As parents, we want our kids to make good friends, friends who they have fun with and can confide in. Of course, not all kids are social butterflies, so how do you encourage friendships at every stage of the game from toddler to teen? Read on to learn!

toddlers and preschoolers

I envy the easy way in which the tiny crowd makes friends. They can plop down next to any random kid at a park, daycare or preschool, start chatting and … BAM! … they are instant pals. Taking your child places and providing chances for him to be around other kids is what it takes for him to make new friends during this special time.

Playdates are a great way for toddlers and preschoolers to try out their social skills. Alyssa Ast, mom of four, says, “Finding parents that have children close in age to yours is a good place to start. Take your children to the park and search these parents out. Strike up a conversation to see if your families share similarities.”

Never underestimate the power of play! “By taking turns and sharing through activity and play, (children) are beginning to build friendships,” says licensed counselor Anna Marie Evans. “It is important to help a child learn this through built-in fun and play-oriented activities that promote taking turns, sharing and caring about their new friends.”

“Whatever the parents give at earlier ages will come home to roost with teenagers,” says Victoria Solsberry, a licensed clinical social worker. “Be there for them as they’re 3 and 8 and 10, and they’ll be halfway normal at 16.”

elementary age kids

If your child attends school, making friends should be easy with so many kids to choose from. Other ways for your child to make friends at this age include: groups like Cub Scouts or Girl Scouts; sports (organized through the school or clubs) where your child can meet kids who share similar interests. If you homeschool, chances are there are many groups in your area where you can attend events and where your child can make friends.

When your child reaches elementary school age, you’ll want to make sure you are still modeling what makes a friend because she’ll learn a lot from you based on how she sees you interact with your spouse, family, co-workers and friends and how you work out disagreements. It’s also important to talk about what makes a friend (e.g., a friend is someone who doesn’t tease you or try to hurt you; someone who doesn’t talk badly about you behind your back or online; someone who comes to your birthday parties, listens to you, shares their things, offers to have you over to their house or do things with them, etc.).

As with the toddler and preschooler period, parents are the ones who model friendships. Ask “what if” questions like, “What if a third kid wants to play with you and your friend?” because you want your child to think about how to treat existing and new friends. Talk to your child about sharing, teasing and playing fair; play board games with them; teach them not to get physical or retaliate.

While getting to know your child’s school friends by having them over often is important, it’s also helpful for kids to have friends in their own neighborhood that they can visit easily and spend large amounts of time with. Rachel Elvin, mom of three, says, “It’s great that my kids have friends who live in our neighborhood. After getting to know the parents, we now just let our sons walk across the street or ride their bike a block up to hang out at their friend’s house.”

tweens and teens

Drama rules during the tween and teen years, and you have the added challenge of helping your child learn how to deal with strong peer pressure along the lines of music, drugs, sex, drinking, how to dress, how to act and more. This season of parenting can make chasing after a marker-wielding toddler seem like a piece of cake.

“Teenagers who have received the love and support that they need at earlier ages will stay connected to their parents and at least consider their opinions,” says Solsberry. Make sure you pay attention to who your child is hanging out with. Get to know his friends by inviting them over and being the Mom Taxi. And talk to your child about things like making good choices, how to get out of sticky situations, what a “good” friend looks like and how you expect to know where they are at all times.

Teach your child some ways for her to make friends, such as: listening to others, smiling at people, keeping the gossip and cattiness to a minimum, talking to people first, being themselves, inviting someone new to sit with them at lunch. Other ideas include: trying out for a school play, participating in a sport, joining a club at school, attending church youth group activities, going to summer camp and so on.

What if your child is hanging out with some kids you don’t approve of? Tweens and teens are like ships that need a lot of steering in the murky of waters of hormones and peer pressure. Ellen Jones, mom of five, says, “When my kids want to hang out with kids that have questionable behavior, we encourage the friends to play at our house so we can monitor what goes on. Then we treat them like we treat our kids and correct their behavior. If they don’t like it, they leave.”

The friendship groundwork you lay when your child is just a toddler impacts how she’ll handle friendships when she’s a teenager and beyond. Teaching her how to get along with other kids will help her hold onto friends and make new ones throughout her life.