Have a Conversation With Your Child
Talk to your child about their own behavior and attitudes and how that can affect their friendships and how you both can prevent that from happening.
Tell your child to try and be observant in class/recess. Is there a child who seems shy and sitting alone? Is there someone who doesn't talk to anybody at recess? Perhaps they could just go over and "share space" with that child.
Teach your child empathy for other children and that shy child could turn out to be a friend for your child.
Have a conversation about what your child wants in a friend, and what they bring to a friendship.
Be honest with your child if you see a trait in them that could turn others off. If they latch onto peers they could see as a future friends remind them that new friends need space in order for friendships to grow.
Consider creating a code word with your child. They could text you/call you/bring it up in the conversation and you can step in and help them get out of a sticky situation or when they need a break.
You know your child better than anyone. If they get overly competitive encourage them to play games that promote cooperation between players.
There are many cooperative and fun board games but also puzzles, building, coloring, etc. activities can be fun. Physical activities that aren't competitive include roller-skating/blading, kayaking, hiking, swimming, etc.
Leave Your Expectations at the Door
Do not compare your child and their social skills to anybody else's especially their siblings, cousins, or yourself at their age.
Not everyone wants or needs a bunch of friends. Having just 1 good friend can be enough for your child.
It may seem like our children who struggle make friends easiest with other children who struggle. This can be comfortable for them to have an ally who understands some of the challenges that they too experience. You may worry that this friendship won't enhance their social skills but remember its nice to have a friend who understands you.
If they are joining a team/league/club give them a head start so they're comfortable. Take them to the field that they will be play and practice at. Being comfortable with the activity and space will help them start out with a little more confidence.
Consider volunteering for the league so you know what's happening and can keep an eye on your child but from a distance. You'll also get to know the other parents which can help provide opportunities for your child to see those they become friends with.
The same thing goes for volunteering at your child's school when possible. Make your presence and support known for your child and try and listen to make sure that they are okay and socializing appropriately.
If your child is struggling to socialize, the challenge will not go away overnight, and they need your support. If you are parenting with a partner or co-parent try and get on the same page before going to your child to bring up the topic.
Tips Unique to Elementary and Younger Children:
Model good social behavior. Your child is always watching you and your interactions with the adults in your life. Socialize in a way that you want your child to socialize with their peers.
If your child has challenges making friends, it won't fix itself overnight. Slowly ease them into social settings that are outside of their comfort zone.
When you have family playtime make sure to practice things that will help them with socializing with friends. Practice sharing and taking turns. If they react well praise them, if they react poorly use it as a teaching moment.
Roleplay socializing with your child. Practice how to be nice, how to share, and how to communicate with a friend if they are unhappy with them or the activity they are doing.
Ask the other child's parent if you can host the first social activity between the children. Your child is most comfortable in their own house and they are more likely to be themselves in an environment they are comfortable in.
Before having friends over to your house put away any toys or items that your child is particularly protective over to reduce potential conflict.
Day of Socializing
Strongly encourage 1 on 1 play when possible. You want to avoid your child being the one that is left out.
Have a starting activity for them to break the ice. Whether it is a craft, game, or even a snack. Oversee the very beginning interaction and make sure it starts off on a positive note.
Keep siblings away from the play. Your child who is struggling may not have as good of social skills as their sibling and this could cause their peer to be more drawn to your other child.
Set short interactions for playdates, perhaps an hour or two. Communicate with the other child's parents that the playdate will be X amount of time. You don't want either child getting tired or irritable by a playdate that lasts too long. You would rather both children wish they had more time together than to be tired of each other and leave feeling annoyed with the other one
Sit down with your child after socializing and ask them how it went for them. Did they have fun? Did their peer say something that was funny? Something that hurt their feelings? • Ask them if they are interested in being friends with this peer. Regardless of their answer ask them why and how they came to this decision.
Be very specific with your feedback after socializing. Did they give a nice compliment to their peer? Did they share their paint well when they were painting? Give clear and easy-to-understand praise.
If your child is an introvert they may be very tired after socializing. When their peer leaves let them relax in the way that they like to.
Tips Unique to Middle Schoolers and High Schoolers:
Keep Communication Open:
Don't wait for a social challenge to arise regularly discuss social rules and norms with your child. If you are out in public and see a social interaction, go well or poorly point it out to your child and explain why it happened.
Introduce the idea that there are different friends for different things in your life. Some people could be your best friend, some are just nice people to work on homework with but maybe not necessarily hang out with. Tell them it is okay that not everyone will be their best friend.
Don't hesitate to check in with your child and tell them you have noticed that they spend a lot of time at home/in their room. While it's ok for your child to have friends online they shouldn't substitute for friends in real life.
Ask your child what they think they bring to a friendship, and what they want in a friend. Help them set their expectations for what a healthy friendship looks like.
If your child lets you know they are unsure how to make friends suggest start small. Smile at people, say hi, and be friendly. Explain the importance of body language. Remind them others are nervous too and could be hesitant to strike up a conversation just like they are.
Older Children Make Friends Differently
As children get older friendships change because they are now based on interests rather than simply proximity. Explore new hobbies and new locations for friendships like a community center, volunteering, or conventions.
Friendships can be made with those a little older or younger especially if your child is interested in things outside of sports or other typical school-based activities. Even if their interest is new to you or not typical for their age or your location activities like geocaching, anime, and community theatre, etc. can provide opportunities for them to meet with others who share their passion.
Many older children form online friendships, gaming groups. These friendships can be real and beneficial so don't instantly write them off but do pay attention and make sure your child understands that not everyone is who they say they are, especially online.
Have a serious conversation about internet safety and what your expectations are for them when on the internet.
If they are experiencing bullying at school, it may be beneficial to find activities outside of your typical area so they can meet new people. For instance, join a town band rather than the school band, look into dance classes with students from all over, or a recreational sports league in another community.