Friend Finder! (Tips for teaching social skills)

A few weeks ago I wrote an article about helping your shy child interact with others.  It was met with many thanks, but also a few requests of a different kind:  “What if my kid is the opposite?  How do I stop him from trying to befriend EVERYONE?”  There are always two ends to the spectrum, and for every seemingly shy child on the playground there is another child who follows everyone around until he/she finds a friend.  I recently had dinner with an old friend who has a daughter a few years ahead of mine.  As we chatted about how alarmingly fast the kids have grown we recounted the story of how her daughter used to run up to every other kid on the playground and say,
“Hi! Do you want to play?”  She often faced defeat because preschoolers generally favor a more delicate approach.  My friend once looked up at me and said, “I don’t know how to tell her to do it differently”.  My response?  “At least she’s initiating friendships”.  It’s hard to watch when your child faces rejection from other kids.  It’s also hard to stand back and watch when you know that approaching a different kid, or introducing yourself in a different way might make a big difference.  Riley is really into big girls right now.  She has a hard time understanding that six year old girls don’t necessarily want to play with four year old girls.  I won’t stop her if she really wants to talk to a group of older girls at the park, but I will try to nudge her in a more age appropriate direction.  Developing social interaction skills is a long process.  Just when they start to get the hang of things they move up a grade and somehow the rules change.  It’s a lifelong process, really.  The good thing about the overt child is that he/she is not afraid to try.  The tricky thing is that not everyone is looking for a friend every time they go to the park.  Some kids stick to one close friend, and others prefer to play alone.  Kids work on social interactions skills as part of any preschool program, and even in hour-long classes, but social skills require a lot of work.  The practicing doesn’t end just because they are home for the day.  While shy kids need to work on slowly leaving their comfort zones, overt kids need to learn about timing, choosing wisely, and social boundaries.  Below are some tips to help you help your child achieve social success:

1. Make a checklist: Preschoolers love lists.  Lists fit into their need for predictability in life.  If it’s organized in some way, it makes more sense.  Come up with a social skills checklist that you can review together before you send your child out with other kids.  Keep it simple.  Here is an example:

  • Find a friendly face
  • Smile
  • Say, “Hi my name is…”
  • Offer to share a toy to play together

2. Teach Reading Facial Cues: Preschoolers often struggle to understand how other people are feeling.  In fact, many struggle to identify their own feelings.  By nature, toddlers and younger preschoolers are fairly self-centered.  They have a lot of learning to do; they are often too busy to think about others.  Around four, they start to show more empathy and think about others.  But they still need to learn how to read facial cues.  Facial Cues Collage: Cut a bunch of different faces from magazine photos and have your child glue them onto a paper.  Help your child study the faces to determine how each person might be feeling.  Write the feelings underneath.  Practice in the mirror: Sit in front of a mirror with your child and make various feelings faces together.  Make a game out of it and try to figure out what each face means.  Feelings Chart: Have you bought one yet? Post up a feelings faces chart in the most used room of your house and review it often.  The best time to teach kids about feelings is when they are calm and happy.

3. Polite Behavior: Practice what you preach.  Even kids who don’t have to use any table manners at home instinctively know to use them at school, but try to set some limits about basic manners.  Yes, I know that boys will be boys at times.  Liam is living proof of that.  But that doesn’t mean that a gentle correction is out of line.  Some behaviors are just off-putting to other kids.  Your list might be a bit different, but try to set limits on the following:  Spitting, sticking out the tongue (many kids actually interpret this as “mean”, excessive burping (at least teach them to say, “Excuse me”), grabbing toys without asking, and physical aggression.  As always, please and thank you are always appreciated by others. And remember that politeness starts with you.

4. Teach Boundaries: Some kids struggle with adhering to appropriate physical boundaries because they just don’t understand them.  They honestly don’t know what it means to be “too close” in proximity to someone else.  Preschoolers tend to stick very close in some situations, but when meeting new friends it helps to understand boundaries.  Hula Hoops: The small, preschool size hula-hoops are actually perfect for teaching appropriate physical space.  Have your kids hold hula-hoops around them and then walk toward each other until the hoops touch to show appropriate space.  If you find them getting too close in a situation, “hula-hoop” is an easy clue to remind them to step back.  Knock First: Many kids are so used to going wherever they please in their own homes that they forget to knock on closed doors when on playdates or in other places.  Teach them to knock on a closed door.  Ask First: Grabbing almost always leads to trouble.  No one likes to have a toy taken without any warning.  I wish I didn’t have to teach this skill all day every day, but it’s part of having a 2 year old and a four year old.  Teach them to ask first.  When they forget, return the toy and have your child apologize and then wait for a turn.  Or choose another activity.  Close Walking: Kids really dislike when other kids bump into them.  Some kids just crave tactile input and like to be close to others, but they can be taught to allow appropriate space with others.  Play follow-the-leader, but ask each kid to count to three before starting.

5. Practice: Get ready to play some pretend and practice how to act when meeting new people and making new friends.  Host Pretend Tea Parties: Or whatever kind of event appeals to your child.  Set up the scenario, make the introductions, practice boundaries and physical space, and remember those manners!  Stop frequently to check and see how the guests might be feeling.  Ask your child to think about whether or not any corrections need to be made.  Make Videos: Break out that Flip camera and start capturing those pretend interactions.  Watch the videos back and review your checklists.  Help your child determine whether or not he/she made an appropriate introduction, adhered to boundaries, allowed others a chance to talk, etc.  Structure Playdates: The best practice is always with other kids.  Try some 1:1 playdates with a child who shares very similar interests and structure the time.  Make a list of activities and set a timer.  Check regularly to make sure that your child is allowing appropriate space and sharing appropriately.

6. Books: “Today I Feel Silly and Other Moods That Make My Day” by Jamie Lee Curtis is always a winner when it comes to helping kids learn about different emotions and reading facial cues.  “Hands Are Not For Hitting” by Martine Agassi is one of a series that also includes, “Words Are Not For Hurting”, “Teeth Are Not For Biting”, and others.  These are great books for teaching basic social skills.  They provide helpful alternatives to each negative behavior.


Social interaction skills are generally a work in progress for most kids.  There is always something to be learned.  If you focus on a few basics on a daily basis, you can help your child achieve social success at the playground, in preschool, and just about everywhere else.

What strategies do you use to teach social skills?

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)


  1. […] but they are not even putting a dent in the numbers that Groupon is producing every single month.  Friends have been passing along the concept of Groupon and it continues to gain […]