Friendships are an important part of everyone’s development and socialization. Friends offer support, encouragement and validation and give us the opportunity to do the same for others. Developing social aptitude as a child is important for achieving meaningful careers and relationships as adults.

If your child has difficulty making friends, there’s a lot you can do to help.

First, place your child in situations with other children who share his interests. Whether it’s sports, music or arts and crafts, get your child involved in activities or groups where he’ll find other kids who share his passion. It’s a lot easier to connect and form relationships when you start with a common interest.

If this is a difficult step for your child, engage in the activity alongside him until his comfort level builds. Once you observe the child making some connections, you can wean him from your presence.

Second, take advantage of ‘teachable moments.’ When something comes up in conversation or appears in the news or popular media that relates to difficulties your child has, use them to segue into a conversation with her. These moments can give you an opportunity to discuss socially odd or awkward behaviors that may be keeping your child from making friends — and to do it in a gentle, non-shaming, affirming way.

Third, don’t thrust your expectations upon your child. If your child is happy with just one or two close friends, then help her to find just one or two close friends.

Fourth, teach communication skills. Role-play with your child, including strategies for initiating both telephone and face-to-face communication.

Fifth, don’t be afraid to seek outside help. If your child seems extremely isolated, withdrawn, defiant or aggressive, your pediatrician or a trusted counselor can help you determine whether there’s a deeper problem and treat it.

Finally, be a role model. A lot of children get more friends just by exercising common courtesy and identifying strengths and positive characteristics in other children. Teach your child by doing those things yourself and by modeling for your child what it means to be a friend.

As published in the September 2004 Edition of the La Crosse Tribune.