Feeling like we belong to a “group” is something all human beings need in life, in one form or another. Feeling like a social outcast has powerfully negative outcomes and, believe it or not many are terrified of being socially rejected both consciously and unconsciously.

No one wants to be picked last or be the unpopular kid. Life can be very cruel to outcasts. Our desires and expectations for our children to have friends or how they should make friends can be colored by our own fears, feelings and needs around this issue. One of the best ways to understand your core beliefs around friendships is to really pay attention to how you react to the situations that your child experiences in life as he learns all about friendship.

It is important to realize that your child DOES NOT NEED to be friends with everyone just like you are not friends with everyone that you interact with. Forcing friendships leads to stress and often disaster. Children are required to learn the complex structure of friendships and sometimes it will be awesome and other times it will be heartbreaking.

Respect true friendships. Kids can play together but I would invite that you allow friendships to blossom or to fade as your child navigates this arena. Help your child learn that we can play with others, we can do things together but we don’t HAVE to be best friends. The best way to help a child understand this is by:

Teaching that friends don’t always agree and that you can still be friends. Helping children feel confident knowing that he can make new friends and bring light to this fact Model that as an adult you respect your child and the play situation.

Teach that friends are people that your child feels are special – not every child that she plays with is a new friend necessarily.

The social arena is very complex and there is a lot to learn for young children. Keep this in mind as a child does not realize when a friend says, “I’m not your friend anymore”, this may only be temporary. Remember that you know friends don’t always agree but don’t expect that your child knows this at the level that you do.

Do not dismiss what your child is feeling, validate with empathy: “ I know you feel sad because Becky does not want to play with you now. It hurts when a friend says that to you doesn’t it.?” Invite your child to tell the other child what she is feeling. “Tell Becky that you feel sad.” This is not going to solve the problem but it will teach your child how to express her feelings to others authentically and responsibly instead of stuffing them down.

Sometimes kids NEED to simply observe others playing without participating. This is normal and a child should not be forced to join in until ready. This will cause social stress and will be harder to deal with later. Observing feels safe and your child may need this first before deciding where and when to join in. Give your child all the time he needs to watch and feel safe without getting stressed about pushing him to socialize.

Asking other kids “can I play?” is usually not enough. You can facilitate as you teach your child how to use language that can help him engage. Help your child ask questions that will make it easier to be seen as bringing something positive into the play.

For example: I see you are playing trucks, can I help bring sand to your building with this dump truck? Do you need help with? Do you need more sand?

As the parent you can help define what others are playing in front of your child so that the children playing will not feel threatened that you will make them play something else by your presence. Example: “They are playing fairies in the lake.”

Guide your child into play with others, refrain from telling your child what he should be doing in the game. Let him decide his role.

Pick out similarities and point them out to your child. You are playing Go Fish and Jenny is playing Go fish. Help your child recognize this to encourage social interaction without forcing.

Offer non-invasive assistance:

“I can see you are watching Tommy, would you like to play with him?”
“You could ask Tommy to play, he might say yes or no.”
“Would you like me to come with you?”
(Speaking for your child) “Jason would like to ask you something. Is there a way he could be a part of your game?” “Is there anything that Jason can add to your game?”

Brainstorm together with your child, through role-playing, some ideas on how to use words to join in with others:

“How can I fit into your game?”
“What do you need in your game?”
“ How can I help you with this?”
“What are you playing?”
“What are the rules in your game?”

Melinda Asztalos is a parent coach, speaker, author and the founder of Life Positive by Design. She assists parents through a conscious parenting process that enables them to achieve and sustain, positive solutions to their specific parenting challenges. For more information, Please visit: http://lifepositivebydesign.com
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