Very young children are able to discern between those who are and who are not friendly. Early preschoolers will gravitate to children who are kind and will avoid those who are deemed to be aggressive, irritable, or selfish. (Carlson CL, Lahey BB, Neeper R. 1984. Peer assessment of the social behavior of accepted, rejected, and neglected children. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 12(2):187-98.)
Parents can help children develop and practice skills that will assist them as they make friends.
Conversational skills, emotional self-control, personal characteristics such as kindness and generosity can all be practiced at home so your children feel more comfortable and competent in social situations.
In addition, children will learn both positive and negative friendship skills from others, so you may want to pay attention to your children’s playmates. For instance, one study of 4 year olds found that those who spent more time with prosocial peers showed less emotional negativity towards all their classmates later on. (Fabes RA, Hanish LD, Martin CL, Moss A, Reesing A. 2012. The effects of young children's affiliations with prosocial peers on subsequent emotionality in peer interactions. Br J Dev Psychol. 30(Pt 4):569-85.)
Help your child develop conversational skills
Maintain eye contact as often as possible when talking with your child
Encourage your child to look at you when he is talking, and encourage him to look directly at others’ faces during conversations.
Use “please” and “thank you” when talking to your child and expect the same from her.
Help your child learn how to identify his own emotions and those of others. Practice naming them.
Use emotion words to describe your own feelings
Help your preschooler to use emotion words, especially in stressful situations.
Help your preschooler identify other children’s emotions and help her respond appropriately. (See newsletter How We Develop Compassion)
Help your child develop social skills.
Take extra toys on your trips to the playground so your child will feel comfortable offering to share with another child – and encourage your child to voluntarily share.
Encourage your child to look around and see if there is a child who is not having fun or participating. Ask your child emotion questions – “How do you think that child is feeling?” Allow your child to problem solve. “What do you think we can do to help?”
Help your child develop an ‘opening statement’. “Hi, my name is John. Would you like to help me build a fort in the sand?”
Then consider participating with your child in the solution. Walk over together to help engage the child with a toy or participation in a game.
Having just one child over at a time will help your preschooler learn to pay attention to another person’s desires and choices
Talk with your child before the play date and ask him which toys he does not want to share. Then consider putting those toys out of sight to minimize the chance of an argument.
Have some activities available that you know your child enjoys and that can be shared, such as coloring, play dough, construction toys.
Put away toys that can only be used by one child or toys that discourage personal interaction (such as video games)
Keep play dates short so the children are less likely to become bored or argumentative.
If your preschooler tends to become anxious or fearful in social situations, please talk with your pediatrician or her teacher as there are helpful resources available.
For information on helping older (and younger) children develop healthy friendships: