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Moving With Kids, Part III: Help Your Children Make New Friends

Michaela Mendes
by Michaela Mendes on December 21, 2016 at 9:10 AM

This is the third installment of a four part series on supporting young children during a family relocation. It provides resources for parents to ease their child's transition and set them up for success and happiness in their new city.

A young girl and boy sitting on a couch with a dog in between them - Navut

When you told your child your family was moving, one of their first questions was, “But what about my friends?” It’s natural for children to feel a sense of loss if they have to leave behind their familiar routine and their comfortable social group. It’s normal for them to feel anxious about making new friends at a foreign school or neighborhood.

As a parent, your child’s happiness is one of your main concerns. Your goal is to ease the transition as much as possible, and that begins with helping them connect with friendly children who share their interests. Friendships are an important part of a child’s cognitive and emotional development. What can you do to help them make new friends after the move?

Step 1: Help Your Child Develop Social Skills at Home

Parenting experts all agree: a child’s social skill development starts in the home. Making new friends isn’t always a skill that comes naturally to children, but when parents teach communication and cultivate a family environment of open sharing, children learn the conversational and interpersonal skills needed to succeed in social situations outside of the home.

A mother and daughter making silly faces together - Navut

Parenting Style Matters

First, assess your parenting style. Experts notice a difference in children’s social development when they grow up with authoritarian versus an authoritative parental leadership.

Authoritarian parents use punishment to control behavior. They do not encourage free thinking and they are not open for discussions. Children raised with authoritarian parents are more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors.

On the other hand, authoritative parents still expect children to abide by rules and live up to expectations for mature behavior, but they relate to them strongly on an emotional level. They explain the reasoning behind their guidelines and this helps children develop a strong sense of right and wrong, attaining independence and self-control.

Emotional Openness Creates a Necessary Support System

Children must feel free to share their emotions. When parents make light of a child’s feelings or dismiss them as inconsequential, the child is less able to understand and reign in their emotions in social settings.

Parents can talk to their children about emotions by asking questions and helping them to understand why they feel a certain way. This creates not only a bond between parents and children, but a deeper emotional comprehension on the part of the child which is key in helping them relate to others.

Teach Empathy

Empathy is the ability to distinguish one’s own feelings from the feelings of others, view a situation from another person’s perspective and regulate one’s own personal emotions about the situation. One of the strongest predictors of whether or not children will show empathy towards others is if they have a secure emotional attachment to their parents or caregivers. Work on developing this attachment at home so your child feels confident in showing concern for others.

Practice “Reading” People

Tell your child to make a facial expression that demonstrates a certain emotion, then try to guess what they’re feeling. Then switch roles and have them guess the emotion behind your facial expression. When children have practice reading faces, they won’t be as unsure in social settings.

A young boy in a red shirt smiling with his arms over his head - Navut

Be a Role Model

Try to model communicative, fun friendships in your everyday life. Your children look to you for social cues to teach them how to act. Interact in a friendly manner with adults who cross your path. Reach out to your friends and include your children in the conversation. As they see you enjoy yourself with confidence in your friendships, they will model your behavior in their own life.

Step 2: Develop a “Friendship” Plan

When children are starting school at a new place, they may feel nervous and anxious on the eve of their first day, especially if they don’t know anyone. You can work with them to create a plan to make new friends. Assure them that it may not happen in one day or even one week, but over time, participating in the following behaviors may very well lead to the creation of new friendships.

It Starts with a Greeting  

Children who are shy may have trouble with saying hello to others. They may not initiate a greeting, but teach them how to respond when another child greets them. Their first instinct may be to mumble a response or look down at their feet, but explain to your child that this may signify to the other child that they aren’t interested in being friends.

Practice with them – help them learn to make eye contact and respond with a wave and a smile. They should say the other person’s name to make the greeting more personal.

Compliment or Be Kind

There are two other ways a child can invite friendship from other children. The first method is by complimenting another child when they achieve something noteworthy, like painting a beautiful picture or scoring the winning soccer goal at recess. Compliments help show the recipient that they are respected and appreciated, and can be a great start to a conversation. 

A young girl at the beach smiling with her arms outstretched - Navut

Children can also practice kindness as a way to show they would like to build a friendship with another child. Sharing school supplies or their last cookie is a kind way to make an overture of friendship. However, caution your child not to try to “buy” another’s affection or loyalty.

Find Similar Interests

Of course, when your child extends these friendly invitations, they should be directed towards other children who are likely to connect with your child. Encourage them to try to make friends with others who have similar interests. Explain to your child that friendships aren’t always built solely between people who have identical likes and dislikes, but it helps to have some of the same hobbies because it provides an activity you can do together and it also gives you something to talk about.

Build a Conversation

Teach your child how to have a friendly conversation. Sometimes your child may not know what to say in the first place, or they may have difficulty keeping the conversation going. Help them learn how to first ask questions, listen closely to the answer, then find something to say that connects to what the other person just said. You and your child can think of a list of questions they may want to ask a new friend and practice them together. This can give your child real conversation experience in advance.

Teach Them How to Navigate Different Scenarios

It can be particularly difficult for children who are entering a new school where all the children are already paired off into their social groups, especially in the middle of the school years. In this case, your child may have to handle unique scenarios they’ve never encountered before. For instance, if a group of children are playing a game and your child wants to join, what should they do? Brainstorm solutions with them and they’ll feel more confident about how to act in order to elicit the best reaction possible from the other children.

Two young boys playing outside and laughing - Navut

Step 3: Dealing with Challenges

You’ve moved and your child isn’t making friends as quickly as they thought they would. Maybe they’re starting to spend a lot of time on their own. Maybe they shared an experience with you where they were rejected at school. How can you deal with these challenges during the adjustment period?

Don’t Let Children See Your Own Anxiety

No matter what, don’t let your own anxiety or anger show. Try to maintain objectivity. Your child may feel like their world is crashing in because they are sad and lonely, but they should be able to turn to you for comfort and strength. It’s normal to feel protective of your child, but be empathetic rather than over-reactive.

Offer Constructive Criticism

If you suspect your child is having difficulty due to behaviors you believe they can correct, it’s time for some coaching. Never give them negative feedback – only deliver positive encouragement. For example, if your child is quiet and shy and tends to look away when spoken to, explain to them that it’s okay to be nervous and shy, but they may be communicating a different message to other children. The other children may interpret their shyness as a sign that they don’t want to play or talk.

Set Up Playdates or Activities

Give your child an opportunity to learn and set up a playdate. If your child is having trouble making friends, hosting the playdate at your house is the best option, since they’ll be comfortable in their surroundings. Prepare ahead of time: have your child pick out a few games and toys they want to play with their guest.

You could also involve your child in activities and events outside of school. Sports leagues, community centers and churches are all great sources of social fun that will help your child get comfortable in the new community.

A young boy running and laughing with bubbles in the air - Navut

Kathy Caprino, Career Coach and Owner of KathyCaprino.com, compares relationship-building among children to that of adults:

"Just as adults meet wonderful new friends when engaged in passions and hobbies they love, so it works with children. Have them get involved in a few new activities of their choosing that will help them make new friends and learn new skills."

Kathryn Eade (@xcultural_tp), Cross Cultural Specialist at Thinking People and relocating mother, tells of her children's adjustment after moving from the UK to Montreal.  According to Kathryn, after-school activities matter: 

"As well as making friends in school, and inviting those friends for play dates, sleepovers and parties, both my children took up an activity outside of school.  We made friends with local families, which provided us with a link into the community beyond school. Whenever anyone invites us somewhere we say ‘yes’. It might be something we wouldn’t usually have done at home, but here we view it as an opportunity to learn new things and make new connections."

Identify Any Learning or Attention Issues

Do you believe your child has a learning or attention disorder? Even if it’s not affecting their grades, it could be affecting how they relate to other children. Talk to your child’s pediatrician or behavioral specialist about any symptoms you’re noticing. Addressing underlying causes can help ease social anxiety and encourage adjustment.

Talk to Teachers and Counselors

Your child’s teachers and guidance counselors should be your partners in helping your child connect to others in the school setting. Share with the teacher that your child is having trouble making friends. They can pair your child with other children who share the same interests when working on projects. Your child’s guidance counselor can help spark their interest in clubs or leagues that they may enjoy.

Give Them Time

A young girl with blond hair spinning in a field while wearing a dress - Navut

Children may take months to adjust to a new community, new school, new neighborhood and new home. Don’t rush them. Encourage open conversation by asking questions and listening intently to the responses. Be patient while your child navigates this period of life. While it may be difficult at times, this is an opportunity for major growth and development. Your child will soon fall in love with their new life and begin to thrive, just like they used to, especially if they have a strong support system at home.


Like what you read? There's more where that came from! Click below to navigate to other chapters:

 Are you relocating with young children?

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Breaking the News | Schools | Social Adjustment | Emotional Adjustment

Michaela Mendes
Written by Michaela Mendes
Michaela Mendes is a Boston-based personal finance writer who loves helping readers make money, save money and prioritize their spending habits. Follow on Twitter @mmendeswrites or visit her website to learn more http://www.mmendeswrites.com.
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