Friends comforting each other Every parent wants their child to have great friends. And when children are struggling to connect with people their age, it’s natural for parents to want to help.

The Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, which provides emotional and behavioral health services for infants, children and teens, understands that it’s normal for parents to worry about their child’s social development. Parents can be great advocates for helping children navigate the challenges surrounding making friends.

More and more parents are concerned about their children’s social development because they may have lost years of exposure to socialize from the pandemic,” says Leela Morrow, PsyD, a CHOP psychologist. “But the good news is there are many ways parents can support their social growth without getting directly involved.”

Set up activities outside school and on the weekends

Part of helping children socialize is giving them opportunities to practice.

“Setting up playdates with friends, signing children up for sports or extracurricular activities, and even socializing with other family members can be great opportunities to help your child get out there and spend time with others in a safe environment,” says Morrow.

Ask questions

Talking to your kids about their social life isn’t always the easiest conversation to start, but asking open-ended questions — and giving them time to answer — can leave a lot more opportunity for your child to open up about what’s really going on.

Here are some prompts for getting the conversation going:

  • Tell me something awesome that happened to you at school today.
  • Tell me something that wasn’t great.
  • How are you adjusting to being back to class in person?
  • What do you think about the people sitting next to you in class?

Recognize the warning signs

If it seems like your child might be having a hard time making friends, one of the first things parents should do is look for signs of bullying.

“If your child comes home from school feeling more isolated or withdrawn, not very talkative or overly evasive of questions, that could be signs of bullying and harassment,” says Morrow. “That’s a cue to check in around your child’s friendships at school.”

But on the other hand, keep an eye out for red flags in their behavior toward others.

“No parent wants to think that their child is a bully,” says Morrow. “It doesn’t make them bad kids — it just means they’re experiencing emotions they don’t know how to deal with and end up communicating them to others in hurtful ways.”

If you’re concerned that your child might be the bully, look at how they are interacting with family members. If your child is acting physically aggressive or mean at home, similar behaviors could be bleeding into their social relationships as well.

Teach emotional regulation

So much about making friends relates to the way kids handle their feelings.

“Creating a developmentally appropriate language to talk about emotions is key,” says Morrow. “When kids are dealing with ‘big emotions’ — sadness, anger, frustration — toward others and they don’t know how to handle it, it can hamper their ability to make friends.”

Start by acknowledging and validating that it’s OK to feel big emotions. Emotions are often related to physical symptoms, so point out that your child may feel those emotions throughout their whole body. Help them recognize the physical symptoms by asking:

  • What did you feel in that moment?
  • Was your heart racing?
  • Were your palms sweaty?

When they’re able to recognize and separate themselves from their feelings, it helps them cope and work through the emotion. This is going to greatly impact their ability to deal with conflict with other children.

Know when to step in — and when to stay out of it

A parent’s job is to give children the tools and opportunities to learn to make friends on their own. Especially as kids get older, it’s good to let them make healthy mistakes, then be there to listen without judgment and offer support and advice as they work through it.

“In extreme examples, like bullying, you should intervene right away,” says Morrow. “But if a child is in an argument, it’s best to let the child figure it out in the moment. Then be there to help them process it afterward.”

Ask for help

Parents are on the front lines of helping their children make friends and socialize, but they’re not alone. Check in with:

  • Your pediatrician, who can provide insight into normal and abnormal development
  • A therapist, who can help your child navigate their emotions
  • A behavioral specialist, who can help tackle larger social and behavioral issues
  • Your child’s teacher, who can give you valuable insights to their social behavior outside the classroom