Family relationships and expectations have a major influence on children’s social development. Family relationships set the foundation for children to relate to others. Children learn how to manage relationships by observing the ways that parents, carers and other family members relate to others.

How parents and carers can help

Tips for developing young children’s friendship skills

  • Arrange plenty of opportunities for your child to meet lots of different people starting right from birth.
  • Children learn from seeing how you treat your friends and their friends and playmates.
  • Children find it easier to get along with others if they can do the same things (e.g., learning to swim or having ball skills).
  • Talk with children about how to be with others. (e.g., "When someone comes to visit we say ‘Hello’"; for an older child "Being a good sport means saying well done to the other person even if you don’t feel like it.").
  • Play games with them so they learn about cooperating and considering others.
  • Read stories about friends.
  • If a child is aggressive, respond to their feeling but tell them that you don’t like their behaviour. Ask them to think of another way to get what they want. When they are very young you need to show and tell them. "I know you feel angry when I am on the phone, but I don’t like it when you hit. If you want me to come just touch me gently."
  • Have other children over one at a time when your children are young. This means no-one is being left out while they are learning.
  • When children are first learning to play together have something planned for them to do.
  • Teach your child to smile and greet other people. Don’t force the issue if your child is not ready. It may help to practice at home, when you greet each other in the morning for example.
  • Teach children some skills like relating and listening to others, being friendly, and responding and showing interest in what others have to say.
  • Help them to show interest in what others are doing, and give compliments to their playmates.
  • Praise your child for being friendly and caring about others.
  • Help children to use words to say what they need and feel (e.g., "I would like a turn with that"; or "Would you like to play in the play house with me?").

Naming feelings for children

  • This is very important in helping children learn to manage their own feelings. It also helps them to start thinking about what other children are feeling. Sometimes a two-year-old will spontaneously do something to offer comfort for a child who is upset or give a dummy to a crying baby.
  • There are lots of opportunities for learning about feelings such as frustration and anger when there is more than one toddler, as they take toys from each other if they want something and physically hang on to what they have. Adults can help them to say what they feel in words, to think about others and to manage frustration when things don’t go their way (e.g., to help them to wait for their turn).

Tips for developing older children’s friendship skills

Teach social and emotional skills

Teach children social skills such as listening to others, taking turns, making friends and resolving conflict. Emphasise skills for cooperative and respectful relationships and acknowledge children’s efforts to use them. For ideas about how you can teach social and emotional skills, see the range of KidsMatter Primary information sheets on social and emotional learning. 

Use positive discipline

Setting reasonable expectations for children’s behaviour, and communicating them clearly and respectfully, sets the tone for cooperation. Being consistent and positive in your approach to discipline communicates to children that they are valued, even if a particular behaviour is not. For further ideas, see the KidsMatter Primary information sheets on effective discipline. 

Talk about values

Read stories that emphasise values with your children. Ask their opinions on whether they think a particular action is respectful, responsible, caring etcetera. Discuss the pros and cons of different kinds of values for promoting effective social relationships. Make talking about values and opinions part of everyday conversation, for example, by talking about things you see on TV. 

Capitalise on ‘teachable moments’

When something happens that requires a response which draws on values, it presents a ‘teachable moment’. Ask children to think about what the problem is and what they could do to improve the situation. For example, when feelings have been hurt you could ask your child’s opinion of what the person might be feeling hurt about. Extend your child’s thinking through asking questions like, “How could you find out what Jo is feeling sad about?” and “What do you think you could do to help?”

Involve children in family discussions and decision making

Encouraging children to contribute to family discussions and decision making gives them practice in listening to others’ views and seeing things from different angles. Listening and contributing to family discussions helps children understand what your values are and shows them that their voices are valued. Involving children in these ways in family discussions and decision making promotes respectful and responsible behaviours. 

Promote a strong sense of identity

When parents and carers notice and acknowledge what children do to help, it shows children that their contributions are worthwhile. This gives them a sense of pride and encourages them to ‘do the right thing’. Help children to work out ways to stand up for what they believe in and let them know that you are proud of them when they do. This helps children to build confidence in their own strengths and values. 

Supervise media use

It is very important for parents and carers to supervise children’s media use and ensure that the things they view are appropriate for their age and level of understanding. When children are repeatedly exposed to violent or inappropriate media images they can see these things as normal. Children often imitate the behaviour they see on TV or on the internet.

See also:

Social development: Suggestions for schools and early childhood services

Social development: Further resources