Babies are born to socialise. From the moment of birth they prefer human faces rather than drawings of faces and they turn towards their mother's voice, suggesting that they are innately wired to be with other people. As children become toddlers they use this innate sociability to make connections with others. Learning how to make friends is one of life's most important skills, and it is one that develops very early on. There are some important things we can do as adults to help our pre-schoolers have a positive experience of making friends.
Firstly, we have to understand that pre-school children do not think in the way that older children do. Their brains are still rapidly developing, and so they see things differently. For example, pre-school children will find it very hard to take on another person's perspective. This is called 'egocentrism', and it means that it can be hard for little children to understand why other children don't want to play a game their way or play with a certain toy right now. Because of this, pre-school children often spend a lot of time playing on their own or engaged in 'parallel play' (where they are playing alongside, but not with, their friend). This does not mean that your child is unsociable or has some difficulties in socialising. Even when they are playing alone, children can still learn about socialising. For example, play sets such as the VTech Toot-Toot Animals Pet Hotel allows children to learn through imaginative play about social skills such as turn taking and communicating. They are just being small children who can only take short bursts of playing together before needing some time alone.
If your child is quiet and observant, you will need to take particular care in how you introduce them into new social settings. Expect them to want to sit on your knee and hold on to you for the first few times. Stay positive and encourage them to join in. If they don't want to join in, chat to them about what the other children are doing so that your child remains interested. As your child "warms up" they will be happier to move away from you and play with other children, and once they have built up some friendships in that setting, they will feel far more comfortable. Regular and predictable play sessions are important. Quiet children are often attracted to more confident louder children, as they can be taken charge of, and these children find it easier to join a game in a passive role initially. Confident children who are natural leaders can play with other confident leaders, but expect quite a few power struggles during these games, as both children try to take the dominant position.
The majority of learning at this age occurs through watching and imitation. So, it is very important that you model positive friendships to your child from the very start. If you are someone who finds it hard to make friends, it can be difficult to build up a strong network of mum friends around you. This gets easier with practice though and not only does it mean that you have a supportive network but it also means that your child is learning a very valuable lesson. Children who grow up seeing their parents have positive friendships that - even if they are going through a rough patch - involve time together, having fun and caring are more likely to build up those positive friendships themselves.
When it comes to arranging time for your child to spend with their friends, remember to keep it short. Small children get tired very quickly, and it is much nicer to end a playdate on a high than wait until both children have melted into sobbing heaps. Finally, don't expect the path towards friendship to run smoothly. There are a lot of mistakes to be made, and these are necessary for children to grow into adults who know what to do and what not to do when it comes to making friends. Even very good pre-school friends will frequently squabble and fight. Your refereeing will help your child to learn the essential skills of turn taking and negotiating.
Dr Angharad Rudkin is VTech's Child Psychologist - keep checking back for her next column exclusive to Female First!
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