Navigating friendships is not always easy—and it certainly takes work to learn how to be a good friend. As a child grows and develops their social skills, it’s only natural that they will have a hard time sharing or may struggle to get along with another kiddo at some point or another. Rest assured that every kid experiences these challenges! However, in the name of raising happy, kind and empathetic children, there are a few things that you can do as a parent to help your child have successful playdates and be a good friend.
As a child development expert, here are my top four tips to help your little one learn to be a good friend.
Talk about flexibility and sharing
A huge part of learning to be a good friend is learning to compromise and share. Teach your child to be flexible by practicing at home with your family. Point out moments when you are flexible as you are playing with your little one. For example, rather than simply following their lead, you can also make requests. Try saying, “I want to use the purple ball.”
At other times you can compromise, then point out that you were flexible, saying something like, “OK, sure, I can be flexible and use the green ball instead.” Other times, ask your child to be flexible. You can say, “Could you be flexible and use the green ball this time so I can use the purple ball?” The same goes for sharing: Ask your little one to share their toys with you and help them practice the skill.
Help them handle the unexpected by validating their feelings
Things never go quite as expected when it comes to children. Adults are much more predictable than children, which can make it really hard when your child first starts playing with other kids. Much like adults, children may have big feelings when things don’t go to plan. It’s important that we validate a child’s feelings, make sure that they know it’s OK to have that feeling and help them work through those emotions in a productive way.
Children may react to the unexpected by becoming upset or even hitting or biting. If a child gets upset when something unexpected happens, first, validate their feelings by saying something along the lines of “I understand that was really unexpected. You really wanted…” Then help them come up with a solution to the problem. The solution may even be taking a body break and a moment away from their friends—and that’s OK, too.
Set them up for success on playdates
Plan it for a good time of day: As your little one is beginning to have playdates and learning about being a friend, set them up to have a successful playdate by first choosing a calm time of day. Getting close to naptime is often tricky, and, if possible, try to avoid shifting a nap in favor of a playdate. Instead, choose a time of day that’s ideal for all the kids coming to the playdate.
Meet at a neutral location: Sometimes it can be hard for your child to host other children in their space and share their toys. Try to meet at a neutral location, like a park or museum, if your little one has a hard time with other kids in their space.
Discuss how toy sharing works beforehand: If you are hosting the playdate, talk about sharing toys before the other children come over. With your child helping, set aside any special toys that your little one will have a very hard time sharing. Place them in a closet or a space where the other children can’t access them until after everyone leaves.
Set up structured activities: Some children really benefit from structure. You can build structure into the playdate by preplanning and setting up structured games and activities. This is a great tool for kids who have a hard time jumping in to play or struggle with self-regulation during playdates.
Teach them to express their feelings and set boundaries in a kind way
It’s important for every child to learn that it’s OK to express their feelings and set boundaries with their friends if they don’t like something. We want to help a child set boundaries in a kind way. If another child is doing something that is bothering them, like maybe getting too close to them, not being flexible or being mean, you can help your little one talk through it with their peers and tell their friends when they don’t like something. Teach them to use their words, saying something like, “I don’t like when you do that. Will you please stop?” It’s also great to teach a child that it is OK to need a body break or a few moments to play alone at times. This is another great skill to practice at home—especially with siblings.
Friendships are some of the most special relationships a person can have, and it all starts in childhood. That’s where we learn what friendship means and how to be a good friend. Remember, it’s normal that your little one has a hard time sharing or a hard time being flexible as they first begin experiencing playdates. Guide them through it, and most importantly, continue to play.
About the author
Allie Ticktin, MA, OTD, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist with a specialty in sensory integration. Her book, Play to Progress, was just released by Penguin Random House and shares the secrets to harnessing the power of sensory play to help children develop to their fullest potential. Allie is also the founder of Play 2 Progress (play2progress.com), an early childhood learning platform with two play-based learning centers in Los Angeles.