By Veronica Cabrera, OTR/L

This Valentine’s Day I reflected on friendship, which is a major building block in a child’s development. Friendship plays such an important role in building self-esteem. It is through friendships, among other relationships, that a child develops social skills. Here they learn to understand and manage big feelings, self-regulate, take turns, create ideas, negotiate with others, and solve problems. It’s amazing what having friends can do in our lives!  

As an Occupational Therapist I see that, for many children, something as important as making friends is one of the greatest struggles. For those with challenges in sensory processing, self-regulation, language, pragmatics, planning, and organization, making friends can be difficult.

As a parent, you can help.

You are in a unique position to help your child build and navigate friendships.

Here are some ways you can offer support:

  • Create and nurture a strong, loving, and accepting relationship with your child. This provides a firm foundation for developing social skills.

  • Be a role model! Use different real-life situations to show your child how you take turns, start conversations, greet people, show empathy and flexibility, accept winning and losing, and repair relationships.

  • Plan play dates, parties and other events where your child can role-play or practice appropriate behaviors. Find peers who share your child’s interests, and focus on games and sports that he enjoys and can participate in. He doesn’t have to excel at a game or sport, but if he knows the rules and has the basic skills it’s easier for him to join in and have fun. If your child is not interested in any game or sport because it’s too hard for him to play, just focus on the fun of playing together by adapting the rules and making it easier for him to experience being successful. Being successful while having fun playing with you will motivate him to participate and challenge himself, which develops the skills needed to interact and play with others.

  • Play along! When your child is playing with a peer, sit with her and her friends and offer support. For example, if she is having a hard time staying in the game, notice when she is losing attention and encourage her to keep playing. If she has a hard time coming up with, developing, or expanding an idea for a game, give her ideas to choose from. Help keep the game going, or slow it down if her excitement is disrupting the activity.

  • Learn the roots of your child’s emotions and reactions. For example, if he becomes disruptive or aggressive at a birthday party, think about what he could be reacting to. By figuring out what could be causing the behaviors (or even better, by anticipating situations that can trigger behaviors), you can help him focus on interacting with peers and having fun at the birthday party.

  • Plan ahead. If you suspect that the amount of people, noise, or movement around your child might create a particular reaction or behavior, you can create a situation that will allow her to step aside to an area where she can take a break from the commotion. This allows her to calm down and get ready to rejoin and enjoy the party. Or if your child has not been able to play with other children because she has a hard time communicating her desire to join in, you can model or offer clues to help her let friends know her intentions. You can say: “When I want to play with my friends I tell them: Can I play with you guys? Or, I want to play.”

  • Help your child understand body language. If he has a hard time “reading” or interpreting nonverbal language, you can help by teaching him what different movements and gestures communicate (i.e., shrugging shoulders, standing with hands on hips, looking away).

As a parent you are your child’s first friend, which is an incredible opportunity for you to nurture her social development. While you cannot make friends for your child, your loving relationship and support can help her to make friends on her own.