Whether your kids are back to playing in neighborhood parks or meeting their classmates for virtual graduation ceremonies, it's important to make sure kids are getting enough social contact with other children.
Childhood friendships provide some of our fondest memories: from afternoons on the trampoline to staying up all night during sleepovers. Some kids, however, have trouble making friends--and tumultuous times like those we're facing can make it tougher to preserve those friendships.
Here are ten ways to encourage your kids' natural social skills -- to help them make and keep friendships for years to come.
- Teach kids to understand their emotions. We all have strong emotions -- both positive and negative. However, these emotions can be difficult to understand, and flare-ups between people who disagree can be tough to resolve when everyone is struggling with heightened emotion. That's why it's important to teach kids to understand and acknowledge their own feelings, as well as those of others.
- Find creative ways to stay in touch. Whether for long-distance friendships or times when schools are out of session, it's a smart idea to have multiple methods of communication on hand for your kids. Setting up regular video chats, instant messaging sessions, or even online video game parties can be a great way to stay in touch with friends you can't see every day.
- For shy guys (and gals), find unique group activities. Does your child struggle around groups of strangers? Try setting up a "play date" focused on a collaborative group activity, like a team sport or a scavenger hunt. Sometimes, interacting with others as part of a shared activity can be a great way to break the ice.
- If summer camp is cancelled this year, organize a neighborhood activity. Does your child usually go to sleepaway camp over summer vacation? Arrange for friends from last year to come visit, or set up a summer camp at home with themed activities in your neighborhood park. If your kids would normally do outdoor activities like camping and hiking, invite kids from the neighborhood to join your family for a summer celebration.
- Avoid competition. Collaboration is the name of the game when it comes to making friends. Avoid competitive situations like one-on-one sports, contests with only one winner, or the use of toys that discourage positive social interaction, like toy weapons or video games that only one person can play.
- Teach kids to set (and respect) healthy boundaries. Boundaries are a critical part of friendships. As we get to know someone on a deeper emotional level, it's important to know when to take a step back and respect someone else's boundaries. Teach your kids healthy ways to learn and respect limits with their friends -- and how your kids can introduce healthy boundaries to take care of their own needs, too.
- Practice high quality conflict resolution. Let kids work things out on their own, when possible. You can give kids a step up in social situations by helping them practice the basics of conflict resolution, like "I feel" statements, and using the Stoplight Method to remind yourself to stop and take a step back before jumping into a conflict.
- Make sure your kids know the signs of bullying. It's healthy for kids to work on resolving conflicts themselves, but sometimes, it's just time to get an adult involved. Check in regularly with your kids to make sure they're having safe and healthy interactions with others, and that they know it's not okay for someone to make them feel bad, hurt them, or otherwise act like a bully. Work together to identify best courses of action for situations where they are being bullied, or see a friend being hurt.
- Befriend the whole family, if you can. When your child makes a friend, there's no reason you can't make a friend too! A great way to help kids keep their friendships is to have a good relationship with their friends' parents. This doesn't mean having dinner together every night, but getting together for a barbecue can be a great way to keep everyone in touch -- and keep your kids connected with their friends.
- Supervise, but don't dictate. It's important to know what's going on in your kids' lives, but it's equally important to grant them privacy when they need it. The best balance of this comes from supervising where your kids are hanging out (and who they're hanging out with), but doing your best not to hover or intervene at the slightest sign of conflict.
When it comes to making friends and keeping them, every kid's approach is different. Our middle school best friends sometimes drift away, and people we sat next to on the bus in third grade can end up appearing in our weddings.
Above all, it's important that kids know they are loved and appreciated, and that they know to love and appreciate their friends, too. When times get tough, we fall back on these wonderful support networks. There's nothing quite like having someone's back -- and knowing they've got yours in return.