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How to Help Kids Develop Meaningful Friendships and Social-Emotional Skills at Home

A man an a small girl read together on a couch as they gasp in wonder together.
Reading stories together is a great way to teach social-emotional skills because kids are exposed to a variety of characters' stories.
Sometimes, children struggle with making and/or maintaining friends because their social-emotional skills are not developed yet. Luckily, social-emotional skills can easily be learned and practiced at home. To get started, try the following activities to give your child’s social-emotional muscles a workout.
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The first bond children have is with their caregivers.

Although it may seem trivial, it’s the very thing that lays the groundwork for people to have good social-emotional skills. That very same bond helps infants — and eventually, children — connect with their caregivers. As the child gets older, caregivers guide children in developing those skills further.

Depending on the child’s age level, appropriate social-emotional skills might involve expressing how they feel, recognizing when someone is sad and understanding that people have opinions and thoughts different from their own.

These foundational skills are key when getting to the next step in any child’s social-emotional journey: Making friends.

Sometimes, children struggle with making and/or maintaining friends because their social-emotional skills are not developed yet. This can have serious implications for a child’s health and well-being since socializing is vital in childhood development.

Luckily, social-emotional skills can easily be learned and practiced at home, which makes sense since that’s where their social-emotional skills start! To get started, try the following activities to give your child’s social-emotional muscles a workout.

Read Stories Together

Stories are excellent for learning social-emotional skills because they expose children to various situations in a safe, comfortable and accessible way. When reading a story with a child, slow down and pause frequently to ask questions. Questions can focus on using words to identify feelings and situations, predicting how characters will respond and problem-solving. Try the following questions the next time you read a story with your child:

  • “How do you think they feel right now?”
  • “Before I turn the page, what do you think is going to happen?”
  • “Do you think these two characters are friends? How come?”

Caregivers should keep in mind that children need to be able to take the information they learned in one place — like when reading a story — to a new situation. For example, if a child reads a story about a character learning how to control their anger, it might help to bring up that story when the child is angry while engaging with other children. Children that can generalize information learned from stories to real-life situations are more likely to incorporate these skills outside of the home, such as when they’re in school and with friends.

Practice Setting Boundaries

Have you ever seen a child get upset because someone else started playing with their toy? Or perhaps you have witnessed a teenager struggle with telling their friends “no” because they didn’t want to be made fun of. These examples demonstrate how children of all ages have boundaries but struggle with articulating those boundaries to others.

Poor boundary-setting can strain any friendship, regardless of how old the children are.

Caregivers can help develop this skill at home by modeling how to set and accept boundaries appropriately. When teaching boundary-setting to children, try to keep the following in mind:

There are different kinds of boundaries children can set with other people, including their friends. Caregivers can teach this to kids by reading various books together, then allowing children to discuss what specific boundaries they could make and for whom. The following books might be helpful.
Click on the name of each book to learn more about it.

Remind your child often that expressing what they want and do not want is healthy, and they will not get in trouble for doing so. When a child sets a boundary at home, caregivers should model what it looks like to accept that boundary. This will help the child be able to identify when their friends accept or do not accept their boundaries.

Learning how to accept other people’s boundaries is just as important as learning how to make our own. Caregivers can help children develop this skill by setting boundaries with them and coaching them through acceptance. For example, a father might say to a child, “Daddy needs some physical space right now for 10 minutes. I will set a timer, and when it goes off, we can cuddle again.” Children sometimes don’t know how to accept a boundary, and it can help to let them know what their options are. For example, the father in the above scenario might say, “You can play with your toys or watch a show for 10 minutes and then come back. Which do you prefer?”

Explore Tricky Situations

Observing your child play with their friends (in person or virtually) can help you get a sense of what “tricky” situations they find themselves in. Perhaps they have difficulty sharing their toys or don’t allow their friends to talk or choose activities. Tricky situations are common, and sometimes children aren’t aware that they are even in them! Try to explore these tricky situations with your child by making your child aware of them, helping them develop empathy and problem-solving. The following tips might be helpful:

If you find that your child is sensitive to feedback about their behaviors, try having them explore someone else’s tricky situation. Books, shows and movies are all great places to start.

The children’s book “Pip and Posy: The Super Scooter” by Axel Scheffler is a great choice to get your child thinking about sharing and setting boundaries. In the story, the main character, Pip, struggles to share his scooter with his friend Posy. At one point in the story, Posy takes Pip’s scooter without asking. When reading this book with your child, take a pause here and ask your child questions like “Why do you think Posy took the scooter from Pip?” “How do you think Pip feels about having his scooter taken away?” and “What do you think Pip is going to say to Posy?” This book is available in print here and in a read aloud version on YouTube.

“Hector and Hummingbird” by Nicholas John Frith is a story about two friends who are a little different. In the story, Hector wants quiet time, but his noisy friend, Hummingbird, speaks loudly around him. This book is available in print via Bookshop and in a read aloud version on YouTube. There are three key areas of the book you’ll want to encourage your child to reflect on:

  • Although Hector wants alone time, he doesn’t initially express this to Hummingbird. Asking your child “What should Hector tell Hummingbird?” during these moments will encourage your child to think about communicating clearly and setting boundaries.
  • Hector eventually becomes frustrated with Hummingbird. Right before he yells “Leave me alone!” to Hummingbird, take a pause and ask your child “Hector is getting frustrated. What do you think is going to happen?” If your child struggles with anticipating Hector’s reaction, encourage them to look at Hector’s face for clues.
  • After running into the forest, Hector soon realizes that he misses his friend. Encourage your child to pretend to be Hector and role-play how they would apologize to Hummingbird. This allows your child to practice saying “I’m sorry” in a safe space that isn’t demanding.

Trying to help a friend when they are feeling sad can be tricky. The book “My Friend is Sad” by Mo Willems follows Piggie as he tries to help their friend Gerald feel better. Piggie tries all sorts of things to help Gerald feel better but nothing seems to work. This quirky story highlights how important it is to ask others what they need when they are feeling sad instead of assuming. This book is available in print via Bookshop and in a read aloud version on YouTube. Try incorporating the following questions when reading this story with your child to help them understand the message behind it:

  • At the beginning of the book, we learn that Gerald is sad. Ask your child “Why do you think Gerlad is sad?” Your child might come up with their own reasons just like Piggie did.
  • When reading through Piggie’s various attempts to make Gerald feel better, encourage your child to reflect on the miscommunication between the two characters by asking “Why do you think Gerald isn’t feeling better?”
  • At the end of the story, we learn that Gerald was sad because he wanted to spend time with Piggie. At this point in the story, encourage your child to think about what Piggie could have done differently by asking “What can Piggie do next time if his friend is feeling sad?”

Model empathy to your child and other people to help them develop it. After modeling empathy to your child, process the situation with them. Here are some examples of how processing this information with your child can look like:

  • “I’m really glad that grandma told us why she was feeling sad. Do you think she felt better after we gave her a big hug?”
  • “When you threw that toy, I didn’t know why you did that. But thank you for telling me that you were upset because it wasn’t working. You’re calm and smiling. Does that mean you feel better now?”
  • “Wow! Your friend looked so happy playing with you. What do you think was making her smile and laugh so much?”
  • “I want to make something nice for our neighbor since they weren’t feeling well yesterday. What do you think we should make for them?”

Role-playing is a fun and effective way to help children learn how to respond well to tricky situations. When role-playing, caregivers can incorporate fun elements like dressing up and playing specific characters. You and your child could decide on a tricky situation together and then “act out” how to navigate it through role-playing. Another idea is to include a scoreboard where the child gets points for using age-appropriate skills to navigate the situation, such as speaking calmly, compromising and listening.

We develop social-emotional skills throughout our lifetimes. Even as adults, we continue to strengthen them to connect with our friends and loved ones on a deeper level.

Giving children as many opportunities to socialize with other kids their age is a great way to practice. Family members and teachers can help out too! Let them know you’re working on it; they can be great modeling examples for kids.

So, if your child isn’t demonstrating the social-emotional skills that are appropriate for their age level just yet, it’s okay! Every child is different and learns in their own unique way.

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