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"Friends buffer kids from loneliness, and keep them healthy and interested in the world," says Hara Marano, author of Why Doesn't Anybody Like Me? A Guide to Raising Socially Confident Kids (Morrow, 1998). Conversely, "friendlessness can derail a child's development."
A child's inability to make and keep friends may first become apparent in preschool, says Marano, when kids tend to start pairing off. If she doesn't ever talk about anyone from class, ask to bring a friend home or get invited to other kids' houses, she might be having trouble; her teacher can confirm your suspicions.
It may be that acquiring social skills doesn't come as naturally to your child as to other kids and she might need extra help developing the empathy and consideration that make others want to be around her. "A parent may need to rehearse the most rudimentary rules of social engagement with the child," advises Marano, "beginning with how to introduce herself: 'Smile, look the other child in the eye and say, "Hi, my name is.... Can I play with you?"'" Remind extremely shy or anxious kids that everyone experiences rejection, and give them tips on recruiting friends. For example, to seek out the friendliest classmates.
Even a child with average social skills may turn inward while experiencing major disruptions, such as her parents' divorce, a serious illness or death in the family, or a move to a new town. As much as possible, you should prepare kids for the changes by talking about what's happening and what to expect, and if you're moving, by checking out the new teacher, school or town in advance. "Very gently encourage your child to take chances," says Marano, "while praising her for little accomplishments. And have the expectation that things will work out." -- Cindy Schweich Handler