Friendship skills for children and teenagers sometimes develop intuitively, and sometimes benefit from being coached. All children can learn new skills and ways to make and keep friends.
We want our children to experience social success, to be liked by their peers, and accepted as a friend within healthy relationships, no matter what their age.
It’s heartbreaking when friendships hit inevitable bumps in the road, or do not develop in the first place.
In this post, we focus on how to build specific friendship skills for children and teenagers.
The strategies in this article are suitable for autistic children as well as neurotypical children. However, no skill should ever be forced upon a child.
For example, if eye contact is too difficult for your child, leave it. Help them build their confidence in other areas.
Building friendship skills in children should be something you do together. Your child needs to be invested in it. They should never be made to feel uncomfortable.
Building Children’s Friendship Skills
Even when social skills don’t come instinctively to a child, brains are highly receptive to building social skills. In other words, the more skill is honed and practised, the more your brain strengthens its associated pathways and the more the skill comes naturally.
It is never too late to start. For example, teenagers who struggle to start a conversation can learn this skill.
You may need to spend some time observing your child, or chatting with them, or speaking to their teacher if they are younger, to work out exactly which skills they might need to develop. Then, you will need to put them in order of priority and help them practise each social skill, one at a time. Here are some examples of skills you may identify and work on:
- Show your child the importance of eye contact by “modelling” this behaviour to them.
- Play games such as the ‘staring game’. Sit face to face with your child or ask a sibling/friend to pair up with them. Ask one child to speak on a topic of interest whilst the other either stares intently or looks away, sharing no eye contact at all. Discuss how each felt to the speaker and to the listener.
- Ask your child to act as a ‘spy’ at school who watches and listens to the way that their peers greet each other.
- Together with your child, write a list of possible ways they might greet a friend.
- Write down if there might be differences between how you might greet a friend, versus an acquaintance or stranger.
- Create a poster together on how to be a good listener. For example, how far to stand/sit from someone who is talking, how to maintain a good listening position where the body is positioned towards the speaker, how to show interest via body language such as nodding head and saying “yes”, and “mmm”.
- Playing the “whisper game” is a great way for the child to learn the importance of listening. In a circle, someone starts by whispering something in their neighbour’s ear. They then have to re-tell what was whispered in their ear to their neighbour. This continues in this way until the whisper reaches the final person in the circle who says the words. Is it the same as the original whisper? Prizes for all if it is!
- Describe any conversation or play like a game of tennis. The ball is passed to and fro like words are exchanged between two (or more) people.
- Create a ‘talking object’ which is passed between you with the person holding the stick as the only person who is allowed to speak. Once they have spoken, pass this onto the next person to speak.
There are many different elements to a conversation and many of which children can struggle with. A child must:
- Gain someone’s attention
- Think about what they are going to say
- Alter what they say based on reactions from their conversation partner
For all the below strategies, practising the skills in as many different settings as possible is ideal – role-playing at home, at school, at clubs etc.
- Ask your child to think about the kinds of things they like to talk about, such as hobbies, books, games, food, etc.
- Discuss with your child the importance of choosing topics that other people would find interesting. You could write a list of children’s names at school, perhaps children from their class who are friends, or perhaps children who your child would like to befriend. Under each name, write 2 or 3 things that they like or which could be suitable topics of conversation.
- For each possible topic of conversation, ask your child to write 3-5 questions related to that topic. Questions are a great way of your child getting to know others.
- Conversations work well when you are able to stay on topic or on a related subject matter. Play a game of ‘association’ with your child. You say a word and your child has to say another word which is related to it. You then do the same. The game continues until you run out of things to say!
- Help your child to learn how to carry on conversations by role-playing. Agree on a list of conversation topics and write one down. Pull a piece of paper out of a hat and this is the topic you will practise having a conversation about. Video the roleplay so you can watch it back together to see how you both did!
Knowing how and when it might be okay to join in with a conversation or game is challenging. For example, in the middle of a board game is not a great time to join in. Trying to get into a conversation with a group during lesson time is also not ideal. Role-playing different scenarios is a great idea and really brings situations to life. Encourage your child to:
- Observe what the group is doing, by watching, listening or standing nearby
- Chose a good time to interrupt such as when there is a pause in conversation or activity
- Ask to join in saying ‘Would you mind if I joined in?’
Help your child talk to you about relationship problems, such as how to manage conflict. Try to encourage them to come up with solutions themselves, rather than giving them the answers or a ‘quick fix’.
Role play different scenarios. You can involve siblings in this too. Video the role play at watch back together and reflect on non-verbal behaviours seen.
Drawing can be a really helpful way of going through a difficult friendship problem. You could use stick figures to represent everyone that was involved, and tell a story of what happened.
Try using speech bubbles to write down what each person said. Also use thought bubbles, to encourage your child to reflect on what each person was thinking when they said and behaved as they did. You could change the ending of the story to play around with different ideas for coping and behaving next time.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.
Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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