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Your child is in grade school and out to explore the world. But she is a bit of a loner and seems shy or reluctant to make friends, and this has you worried. Other kids your child's age seem to have no trouble in the social-life department, easily making and keeping pals.
You can help, and it's worthwhile. Playing with friends is an important way for young school-age children to learn social rules such as cooperating, not hurting each other's feelings, and waiting their turn. It's also fun.
The key, many parents and experts agree, is taking small and gentle steps that encourage positive social interaction without being too pushy. The goal is to give your child opportunities for rewarding social experiences that will leave her wanting more rather than feeling pressured to do something she finds difficult. Your child may be shy or cautious by nature, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Rather than try to change your child's personality, you can help her stretch just enough to discover the joys of relationships with peers.
But you can't just pick someone out and expect your child to be friends with that person. "You really want to pay attention to your child's cues," says Kimberly Sirl, a child psychologist at St. Louis Children's Hospital.
Playdates, or informal get-togethers, offer a shy child a starting block for a social life. A few guidelines can increase the odds that your child will have a good time. "If you promote a positive experience, your child is more likely to want to play again," says Dale Walker, a professor of child development at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Here's what to do:
Keep playdates small. Start by inviting only one or two prospective pals over to your house, preferably kids your child already knows who are around her age. Ask your child who she enjoys spending time with at school, and arrange a get-together. Your child's teacher can help you get in touch with other parents.
Keep playdates short. One or two hours is plenty when kids are just getting to know each other. True, this might mean that the new friend will have to leave just as things are really getting fun, but this is better than having the playdate go on too long and deteriorate into squabbles, leaving a sour taste in everyone's mouth.
Plan ahead. Orient the playdate around games and activities that your child enjoys and is good at. This will make her more comfortable and keep her feeling good about herself. Let your child pick the activity, but make suggestions. "Maximize the positive interaction by making sure there are plenty of materials, so children have enough to play with and don't necessarily have to share right off," Walker says.
Get involved. Don't just leave the kids to play by themselves and hope for the best. Your guidance can make children feel more at ease with each other, especially new friends. Oversee art or cooking projects, or suggest a game. If this seems to make your child more self-conscious, though, back off. Do make yourself available in case they run into conflicts, get distracted and stop playing together, or need a change of activity. However, try not to dominate or fill in for your child; the idea is to help break the ice without taking control. "Mom or Dad can help get things going, then hang back once the kids get into the groove," Sirl says.
Get a schedule, then get going. To develop familiarity, try to arrange regular playdates with the same kids on a weekly basis. If things are going well, meet in a park or playground or at another child's house. If the playdates go really well and your child runs off independently to play with the others, try leaving her at someone else's house without you, first for a short time and then for longer periods.
Be a playdate yourself. It helps to play regularly with your child. This allows you to stimulate interaction while getting to know your child's playing style. "You can get a sense of where she struggles and when it is easy for her," says Alison Ehara-Brown, a licensed clinical social worker who works with children and families in Berkeley, Calif. For example, if puzzles and games requiring lots of concentration do little more than frustrate your child, it's best not to include these activities in a playdate.
Embrace a few fads. First through third graders are often into fads such as Pokémon or Hello Kitty. While your child's cultural icons may not delight you, they offer great bonding material, common ground for forming friendships. Allowing your child to play with popular toys and watch popular television shows or videos can give her a way to communicate with peers. "It helps to have something in common to talk about," says Ehara-Brown.
Talk to her teacher. Visit her classroom to get a picture of how your child acts around her peers at school. Your child may seem drawn to certain classmates — potential playdates — and put off by others. Talk with the teacher about your concerns, and work together on school-based strategies that could help your child make friends. Also, "investigate whether your child is having a negative experience at school," Walker says. For instance, if she is being bullied regularly by certain children, ask the teacher to intervene.
See how others do it. Watching videos or reading books about friends and friendship can be a nonthreatening way to reinforce the positives of socializing. It can also be a starting point for talking with your child about making friends and may encourage her to open up and express her feelings.
Have your own friends over. Since children pay close attention to what grown-ups do, model for your child by having your friends over, especially in ways that include the younger generation. Have a double playdate with a friend who has kids.
Try not to expect too much. If your child feels she's being forced to make friends, the best intentions can backfire. She is probably already insecure around other children, and pressure from Mom or Dad can fuel that insecurity. "Avoid overfocusing on it and getting into a battle of wills," Walker says. "Kids will clam up and be more shy."
Get help if you sense a real problem. In most cases, shyness or difficulty making friends in childhood is normal. But a few red flags could indicate that something else is going on. If your child rarely holds eye contact, is unusually withdrawn, throws tantrums or cries whenever other children are around, or seems terrified of going to school or the playground, talk to your pediatrician.
Kate Rauch is a mother of two who has written about parenting and health for the Washington Post Health section and Newsday.