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Good Friends

After her first day in second grade, my daughter, Elizabeth, came home upset because every girl had paired up with a buddy except for her. She named each twosome in the class. "Why don't I have a best friend?" she asked sadly.

By fourth grade, a golden best friend emerged  -- only to drop my daughter for another pal the following year. Again, Elizabeth stood alone at recess and walked through the halls by herself. On field trips, she sat with the teacher on the bus. No amount of my prodding would convince her to approach other girls, who, she lamented, were all in cliques.

Her friendship difficulties tore at my heart. At first, I thought we were the only ones going through this. Then I met Joanne. She confided that her 10-year-old daughter was having so much trouble keeping friends that Joanne was considering enrolling her in another school. Soon after, my friend Paula confessed how hard it was for her sixth-grade son to find buddies. And my neighbor Sally tearfully recalled that her daughter Axelle had repeatedly "forgotten" her winter coat every morning for weeks. When Sally finally asked her why, Axelle said that without a coat, she wouldn't have to go outside for recess and be rejected yet again by other fourth-grade girls.

I began to realize that although most kids have at least a few pals, turbulence in young friendships is the norm. Children constantly reassess whom they like, who hurts their feelings, and how to fight and make up. The process is often painful, as groups of buddies coalesce and dissolve, sometimes leaving one child on the outside. Yet these shifting loyalties are common, especially from ages 5 to 10. "Friendships are very fluid among children," says Harriet S. Mosatche, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist and director of program development for Girl Scouts of the USA. "By middle school, parents expect children's friendships to last longer, but even then, they're still evolving."

For some kids, attracting buddies is as natural as breathing. "These children smile and reach out to others almost from the minute they're born," explains Mosatche. "For others, it isn't second nature." But whether your child is outgoing or not, you play an important role in helping her forge close relationships.

Marla Paul is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

Build a foundation

Children model their peer relationships on those they have with family. A youngster who feels loved and accepted at home will more easily connect with others, says Linda Rubinowitz, Ph.D., a child and family psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. If a parent and child talk about their feelings, act respectfully toward one other, and quickly repair conflicts, she says, then those positive people skills can be transferred to friendships.

Set the scene

A year ago, when Elizabeth was having trouble finding pals, I invited a mother and her son out to dinner. Like my daughter, he was very bright, liked to read, and was struggling socially. Though the boy brought a book in case conversation lagged, he didn't need it. The kids chattered throughout that meal  -- and many others afterward. "This is the first time he's been able to talk to anybody like this," his mom said gratefully. As an added bonus, she and I became friends, too.

New kids at school are usually good possibilities for companions. Arrange for your child to meet an incoming student over the summer before classes start. Or, if your youngster identifies a classmate he likes, ease the way by suggesting the two of you get together with the child and his mom or dad for ice skating or a movie.

If your child is between 5 and 10, ask the teacher to help with "matchmaking." But older children should be encouraged to take matters into their own hands, while you remain in the wings. For example, if your daughter mentions a girl she'd like to be friends with, suggest she buddy up on a school project. "Work through the child as much as possible," says Rubinowitz. "That gives preteens the sense that they have some influence over the outcome." If your child is not comfortable handling the situation on her own, talk to her teacher together.

Seek a peer group

Some kids have trouble making friends because they can't find children with similar intellects and interests, says Carol Morreale, who has designed gifted programs for 30 years and is director of instruction in Lake Forest, IL, public schools. Parents in my school district launched an after-school program that offered chess, photography, and astronomy, in part so kids who weren't interested in sports could meet like-minded pals.

Enlarge the potential friendship pool by enrolling your child in a church or synagogue class or youth group, dance lessons, group music lessons, a park district softball team, or a community theater. In the summer, sleepaway or day camp provides another rich opportunity to meet fresh faces.

Don't dismiss friends who make only an occasional appearance in your child's life. "Casual relationships are better than no friends at all," says Patti Adler, Ph.D., professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder and coauthor, with her husband, Peter Adler, Ph.D., of Peer Power (Rutgers University Press).

The friendship dilemma hit the Adlers' home as well. When their son failed to establish close friendships in middle school, the Adlers invited the neighborhood kids over for snacks whenever he played baseball with them in the park next door. He was also enrolled in summer baseball camp. And the Adlers planned an outing to a water park, asking their son to invite six classmates. The parental effort worked, and the boy began to develop real buddies.

Peter Adler, a sociologist at the University of Denver, adds, "Any interaction with other children is better than being alone all the time." Kids learn how to compromise with and accommodate each other  -- which prepares them for adulthood. Remind your child that it takes time and effort to build relationships, notes Trevor Romain, author of Cliques, Phonies, & Other Baloney (Free Spirit). "You can't make a friend in one minute. It's something you build on each day," he says.

Coach your shy guy

A more introverted child may have a harder time making connections. First, be clear that you accept your youngster exactly the way she is, advises Barbara Lewis, an educator and author of Being Your Best: Character Building for Kids 7-10 (Free Spirit). Don't label her as shy, which will make a child feel like she's stuck in a mold, Lewis explains.

Bolster her self-assurance by helping to develop her interests and talents in sports, academics, or the arts  -- "as long as it's something the child likes and is good at," Lewis says. Play creative games to strengthen your youngster's social muscles. One game is imagining an alien landing on earth. You play the alien. Ask your child, "What would you say to this Martian to make it feel welcome and find out what it likes?" Or pretend you are a new kid at school. Ask your child what she'd say to help you feel included. "Role-playing these scenarios builds confidence," Lewis says, "like training wheels on a bike."

Kids also need to learn icebreakers. Compliments like "That backpack is so cool!" or "I always laugh when I'm around you  -- you have the best sense of humor!" work well, suggests Romain. Or a child might say, "I noticed you're really good in art. Could you show me some of your other drawings?" My daughter made one of her closest friends  -- a shy schoolmate she barely knew  -- when the girl began complimenting Elizabeth on her clothes. She discovered they both loved animals, drawing, and laughing uncontrollably.

Ease rejection

Sometimes efforts to make friends will be rebuffed. If your son is rejected when he asks a classmate to play basketball at recess, for example, explore reasons the other kid might have refused  -- which may have nothing to do with your son. Discuss what to do if it happens again, such as asking the boy if he wants to play another game, like tag, or asking someone else to play.

Being dropped by a friend can be devastating. If your child is rejected by a pal she values, don't dismiss her pain by joking about it, putting the friend down ("I never liked Jill, anyway") or saying, "Why don't you call somebody else?" Be sensitive and try to understand what your child is feeling. At the same time, don't deem the situation more serious than it is, says Mosatche. You might be more upset than your child is about the rejection. Explain that some people are better matches than others, and explore why this relationship didn't work. You might say, "Jill is going her own way. She'll find other friends to relate to. And so will you. There are lots of people who will appreciate the qualities that you have." If your child is consistently losing friends or being shunned by other kids she tries to befriend, consult her teacher and school counselor.

Praise good moves

Observe your child with his friends, homing in on good behavior. Then reinforce it. "If there's a moment when your child is being supportive or considerate of his friend, compliment him. Say, 'You should be proud of yourself. You're really being a great friend,'" Mosatche suggests.

Nurture kindness and thoughtfulness toward your child's pals. When my daughter's friend was sick, I suggested she make her a get-well card and call every day to see how she was feeling. If a buddy has done something special  -- say, sung a solo in a school musical  -- your child can send her a feel-good e-mail: "You rock!" or "You're ready for Broadway!"

Share tips for being a good listener and showing interest in other people  -- not just talking about oneself. Encourage your child to respect differences between people, to resist name-calling, and never to make fun of others' beliefs. Friends should not be clones of each other.

Point out bad behavior

When your child is acting insensitively, step in. Bossing her friend around? "That's an opportunity to teach in a concrete way," says Mosatche. After the friend leaves, ask: "How do you think Jason felt when you dictated all the games you played and never let him choose?"

Then role-play to think about how she could handle circumstances differently, Mosatche suggests. But choose your battles wisely. "If you're constantly critical, kids block you out," she warns.

Resist the urge to rush in when children fight. "They need to learn that after getting angry with each other, finding a solution and staying friends is possible," says Rubinowitz. If your child and her friend can't work it out on their own, nudge them to talk about their feelings and brainstorm about what to do. With kids over age 10, stay out of the action while the friend is around, unless they get physical with each other and you need to intervene. Later, remark to your child: "It sounded like you and Jesse were having a hard time today." That gives her a window for discussion.

While you can support your child in building friendships, the ultimate responsibility rests with him or her. My daughter eventually found three close friends. They sit together at lunch, sleep over at each other's homes, and spend countless hours on the phone. It's an enormous gift  -- but one she had to give herself.