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How can I help my preschooler make friends?

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

For the past two weeks, my 4-year-old has come home from preschool every day saying that nobody will play with her. My daughter is a sweet girl but can be very sensitive, demanding, and whiny. I have not seen many interactions with her classmates, but her teacher says the other kids tell her they do not like her. (Another teacher told me she is the teacher's pet.) How can I help her make friends?

Answer:

At 4 years old, some children still lack the necessary skills to develop friendships and get along in a group setting. Temperament certainly plays a role in this: Easygoing, cheerful children tend to make friends easily and adapt well to new situations. Sensitive, cautious kids like your daughter often have a harder time and are more likely to cling to adults and be left out of other children’s activities and games.

Help your daughter get to know her classmates outside of preschool by approaching another parent and arranging a playdate. Keep it short and simple by planning a one- or two-hour get-together with just one other child. Meeting at a park, library, or indoor playground are good bets, since the locations are neutral and both children can focus on the same things. If this goes well, try setting up another playdate at your house or the friend’s home.

Do this with a few other kids so that your daughter develops friendships that can be transferred to the classroom. Also, consider enrolling her in a small-group extracurricular activity such as gymnastics, dance, or swimming. That way, she’ll learn valuable social skills while reaping the health benefits of an active lifestyle.

Talking regularly with your daughter’s teacher will help you get a clearer picture of her progress. Set up a weekly meeting, and find out what happens when other kids tell your child they do not like her. Does the teacher tell your daughter how to respond, or does she spend more time comforting her, possibly leading to the “teacher’s pet” label? Is your daughter provoking these comments or saying similar things to other children but just not telling you? Ask for suggestions about what you might do at home.

Finally, take a close look at your own reaction: Could you be inadvertently reinforcing your daughter’s behavior by giving her extra attention when she seems upset? The next time she complains about preschool, try asking her to name two good things that happened that day. Then reward her with praise and attention. Over time, her attitude toward her classmates may improve.

However, if your child’s problems with making friends persist, consider speaking with her pediatrician or a mental health professional.

Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.