Playing with friends is an important way for children to learn social rules, such as sharing and taking turns, and to develop resilience, confidence, and problem-solving. Of course, playing is also fun. But for some kids, developing new friendships can be about as hard as learning a new language.
Your child may be shy or cautious by nature, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Rather than try to change your child's personality, you can help him stretch enough that he feels more comfortable reaching out to new friends. The key is taking small and gentle steps to encourage him without being too pushy.
You want to give your child opportunities for rewarding social experiences that will leave him wanting more rather than feeling pressured to do something he finds difficult. Here are some tips that may help.
Playdates offer a shy child a starting block for a social life. A few guidelines can increase the odds that he'll have a good time. "If you promote a positive experience, your child is more likely to want to play again," says Dale Walker, a professor of child development at the University of Kansas.
Here's what to do:
Keep playdates small. Start by inviting only one or two prospective pals to your house, preferably kids your child already knows. These children should be around your child's age, "if not a little older," says Walker. "The older child might initiate a little more."
Keep playdates short. Between one and two hours is plenty for children this young – you don't want to overstimulate them.
Plan ahead. Prepare some games and activities your child enjoys. This will make him more comfortable and keep him feeling good about himself. To get things off to a good start, Walker suggests making sure there are plenty of materials to go around, so kids don't have to share right away.
Get involved. Don't just leave the kids to play on their own and hope for the best. Your guidance can make children feel more at ease with each other, especially if they're just getting acquainted.
Make yourself available in case they run into conflicts, get distracted and stop playing together, or need a change of activity. Oversee art projects, games of hide-and-seek, or time splashing in a wading pool. However, try not to dominate or fill in for your child: The idea is to help break the ice without taking control.
Get a schedule, then get going. To develop familiarity, try to arrange regular playdates with the same kids on a weekly basis. If things are going well, meet in a park or playground or at another child's house. If the playdates go really well and your child runs off independently to play with the others, try leaving him at someone else's house without you, first for a short time and then for longer periods.
Be a playdate yourself. Have regular playtimes with your child, just the two of you. This allows you to stimulate interaction while getting to know his playing style.
"You can get a sense of where your child struggles and when it is easy for him," says Alison Ehara-Brown, a licensed clinical social worker who works with children and families in Berkeley, California. For example, if puzzles and games requiring lots of concentration just frustrate your child, don't include them in your playdate activities.
Some young children just aren't ready to play with peers. If your child clings to you and refuses to leave your side, consider adding a furry friend to the family. Playing with pets requires social interaction but is usually nonthreatening.
"This can be a nice way for a child to feel safe and open up his feelings," says Kimberly Sirl, a child psychologist at St. Louis Children's Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri.
A pet also gives your child something to talk about with other kids. Maybe he can take his hamster to daycare for show and tell, or compare notes with another child at the dog park.
Before getting a pet, though, it's a good idea to consider how much your child will be able to help with its care.
If you look at making friends as a skill to be learned just like any other, it makes sense that kids who are puzzled by the process might benefit from seeing firsthand how it's done.
See how others do it. Watching videos or reading books about friends with your child is a low-key way to show him that making friends can be fun. Check out Making Friends Is an Art!, by Julia Cook, How Do Dinosaurs Play With Their Friends?, by Jane Yolen, or Too Shy for Show-and-Tell, by Beth Bracken. A good choice for parents to read by themselves is Friends Forever: How Parents Can Help Their Kids Make and Keep Good Friends, by Fred Frankel.
Have your own friends over. Young children pay close attention to what grown-ups do and often imitate their behavior, so model friendship for your child by having your friends over, especially for gatherings that include the younger generation. Have a double playdate with a friend who has children.
Let your child see you being friendly and outgoing when you answer the phone or when you chat with neighbors or people at the grocery store. When you have the opportunity, be friendly and engaging with kids who are near your child's age – your child will see that other kids respond well to the effort.
You can help your child feel more confident by exposing him to new settings where he can learn to participate over time. If your child regularly goes with you to the grocery store, encourage him to help you at the checkout until he eventually feels comfortable enough to choose and pay for his own treat. Or sit in the same spot at the playground every visit and let your child gradually work his way over to where others are playing.
At home, try using puppets to role-play ways to make new friends. Your puppet can ask the kinds of questions that get the ball rolling with new kids: "Mr. Bear, what are you building in the sand? Can I help?"
You can do some role-playing on your own too. Talk about a situation that makes your child feel shy, such as joining another child on the swings at the playground. You can be the child on the swings while your child practices what he might say to you to join in.
By the time your preschooler reaches age 3, his interactions with other children will be more involved. But preschoolers on the younger side play mostly side by side, imitating each other rather than playing together directly.
If your child feels pressure to do more than this, the best intentions can backfire. He is probably already feeling insecure around other kids, and pressure from a parent can fuel his insecurity. Your child may fear disappointing you, or the issue can become a power struggle.
"There's a fine line there. You don't want to really push friendship, but you can certainly set the stage for it," Walker says.
In most cases, shyness or difficulty making friends in early childhood is normal. But a few red flags could indicate that something else is going on. If at age 3, your child rarely holds eye contact, is unusually withdrawn, doesn't want to play with other children, or seems terrified of going to preschool or the playground, talk to your child's doctor.