Listen to an audio file of this tool.
Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play a key role in your child’s success. Helping your 4-year-old child to grow healthy friendships is essential. Through relationships, your child develops a sense of belonging. They come to better understand themselves through their interactions with you, their caregivers and teachers, and their peers.
Children, ages 3-4, are in the process of learning about themselves, their strengths, and their limitations. They are learning about why they feel the way they do, and how they relate to others. This is also known as their self-awareness.1 Three-to-four-year-olds have not only taken notice of other children, they are realizing that play is much more fun when engaged with others. Play grows your child’s social and emotional skills. In social play, children naturally practice cooperation, negotiation, inclusion, communication, flexibility, conflict management, and diversity appreciation.
Yet, friendship is a brand new concept to your child, and they will face challenges. They may become upset and confused as friends move quickly from one interest to another and from one friend to another. Peers may argue about toys they want, who gets to be first in line, or who gets to play with whom.
Learning how to connect with and care about others is essential to your child’s development. Friendships will even affect their physical health, mental health, and wellbeing. Learning how to support their growing friendships can help you feel more competent in your role as a parent. The steps below include specific and practical strategies to prepare you to help your child through the ups and downs of growing healthy friendships.
Your child’s ability to get along with and play with others can shape their experiences at the park, in playgroups, and at preschool or childcare. You can offer them support as they exercise their newly forming social awareness and relationship skills.
Today, in the short term, focusing on creating healthy friendships can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- trust in each other; and
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self; and
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making.
Five Steps for Growing Healthy Friendship
This five-step process helps you and your child in developing healthy friendships. It also builds important critical life skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Intentional communication and actively building a healthy parent relationship will support these steps.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
Three-to-four-year-olds are highly active and exploratory, seeking moments for imaginative play. They now can view themselves as a whole person with a body, mind, and spirit but are still learning to identify their big feelings. Your child is gaining skill and ability in cooperating with others and working through conflict with pretend play.
Paying close attention to your child’s facial expressions, body movements, words, and sounds helps you better understand what they are trying to communicate. Your effort to learn from your child will create empathetic interactions that let them know that you are interested in what they are thinking. These interactions will help your child grow healthy friendship skills. In becoming sensitive to the nuances of your child’s verbal and nonverbal expressions, you
- are responding to their needs;
- are growing their trust in you, sense of safety, and their sense of healthy relationships;
- are offering greater motivation for you and your child to work together;
- are deepening your ability to communicate with one another; and
- are modeling empathy and problem-solving skills.
- Each time there is an opportunity, ask your child, “How do you feel? How do you think the other child feels?”
- For example, if your child is with others who are expressing feelings, help your child notice cues from other children’s faces and body language. For example, “She’s slumped over, and her face is frowning. Do you think she’s feeling sad?”
- If your child is feeling unsure about how others are feeling — or buried in their own feelings — consider asking questions like:
- “What do you notice the other child is feeling?”
- “How do you know from their facial expression?”
- “What does their voice sound like? How are they moving?”
- When reading books, look at the images of children or animals and guess the feelings by asking “What do you think that character is thinking? What do you think that character is feeling?”
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, there is a lot to learn about understanding your child’s rhythms, temperaments, and needs. Because of all of this learning, you will make mistakes and even poor choices. How you handle those moments can determine how you help build your child’s sense of healthy relationships. Offering yourself the grace and permission to not be perfect can ease your anxiety in responding to your child’s needs. Learning about developmental milestones can help a parent better understand what their child is going through.1 Here are some examples:
- 3-4-year-olds are copying or mimicking adult words and actions.
- 3-4-year-olds are growing in their sense of empathy for others and will attempt to comfort another crying child and will show affection for others without prompting.
- 3-4-year-olds can carry a conversation offering two to three sentences but do not yet have an emotional vocabulary and are not able to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feeling. A feelings vocabulary takes longer to develop.
- 3-4-year-olds are eager to engage in pretend play by themselves and cooperatively with other children. Children gain vital practice with all of their developmental milestones through play.
- 3-4-year-olds can show defiant behavior and test boundaries as they learn about the rules and attempt to understand your values.
- 3-4-year-olds are able to show a wider range of feelings.
- 3-4-year-olds may begin to experience separation anxiety when you leave them.
- 3-4-year-olds can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in a particular situation.
- 3-4-year-olds are beginning to notice differences including culture and race, making it a critical time to discuss inclusion and the essential nature of different perspectives in order to learn.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Read and pretend play together.
- Use reading time and select a book of faces to help your child learn to identify the different feelings of other children. Point out how you can tell what each child is feeling, and practice recreating those cues with your child.
- After reading a story together, act out the plot and use feeling words and expressions to match how the characters were feeling throughout the story. This expands their feelings vocabulary and teaches them how to recognize a wide range of perspectives and feelings that they might not encounter in day-to-day interactions with others.
- Share your thoughts and feelings. Talk about what you notice, how you are feeling, and why you are feeling it. “I am excited to see my friend because I haven’t seen her in a long time. Can you tell? I have a big smile on my face.”
- Talk aloud about the ways in which you respond to your own big feelings. “I’m going to take a few deep breaths before I ask my friend for help because I am a little nervous.”
- Develop empathy. In addition to developing these essential skills that lead your child to act as a good friend, there are beliefs and attitudes that you can promote to help them too. For example, when your child points a blaming finger saying “He did it!” you may respond with
- “What do you think he’s feeling?”
- “What choice would you make if you were feeling sad or hurt?”
- “What do you think could make him feel better?”
Don’t tell your child what they feel; ask instead. Three-and-four-year-olds are striving for independence and may create a power struggle if you are too direct about their thoughts and feelings. You might say, “You look angry. Is that right?”
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Your daily routines are opportunities for your child to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your child will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themself.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy – a child’s sense that they can do a task successfully. This leads to confidence. It helps them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
- Provide opportunities for your child to meet and interact with other children and adults of all ages, races and cultures. Point out similarities and differences. Talk about how differences help us learn more about ourselves and others.
- When out in your community and while running errands with your child, make introductions and involve your child in conversations with others like neighbors, the bank teller, or the grocery cashier.
- Use “Show me…” statements. When a child learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. “Show me how you can introduce yourself to our new friend.”
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I noticed how you included your new friend when you were playing games at the park. That’s excellent!”
- Schedule playdates. Playdates can become invaluable practice for your child. Playdates build connections and help your child to practice the skills you’ve taught them.
Many children are born with a cautious or shy temperament; they might not readily warm up to strangers and may show a fear of strangers. Respect that temperament by not forcing interaction, but instead model your own kind interactions with others.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child how to connect with and care about others, and you are allowing them to practice so they can learn how to use their new skills well. Now, you can offer continued positive support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Learn about development. Each new age and stage will present differing social challenges. By becoming informed about the developmental milestones your child is working toward, you will gain empathy and patience.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements: “I noticed how you started playing with that new girl on the playground. I love seeing that.”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your child is scared of new people or situations, offer confidence in your child’s ability to face the new. In a gentle, non-public way, you can whisper in your child’s ear, “Remember how you enjoyed meeting my friend Susie. Anna is kind too. You might enjoy meeting her today.”
- Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when approaching challenges. You can offer reflections like
- “You seem worried about meeting your new friend at the park. I’ll hold your hand so that you feel more confident.” Offering comfort when facing new situations can help your child gain a sense of security and face them rather than backing away.
- You can also offer comfort items to help your child face new challenges. “Would your bear help you feel more confident?”
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different friendship-building strategies can offer additional support and motivation for your child when tough issues arise.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior you want to see more of. For example, “You shared your toys with your friend — love seeing that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you share your toy with your friend, I will let you have more time to play at the park” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You were sharing your toys with your friend. I really appreciate that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. If your child was scared or shy when encountering others on the playground but seems perfectly content today, notice their newfound comfort. “I notice you are feeling happy making new friends on the playground today!”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like a fear or insecurity to go away – in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Include hugs, kisses, and snuggles in your ways to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.