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Teach your child ‘ninja-style’ friendship tricks

There are few things more painful than watching your child struggle to make friends. Fortunately this is a skill that can be improved like any other. Friendship expert DANA KERFORD shares concrete tips for helping your child develop their friendship muscle. By Sonia Speedy

Dana, who runs the friendship programme URStrong, which is taught in schools internationally, says making friends doesn’t come easily to everyone, as evidenced by that grown-up you know who still lacks social skills.

She adds that kids’ friendships are often aligned with their interests and hence can change quickly, particularly at certain ages.

“We want kids to get really comfortable with that natural ebb and flow that happens in their friendships. Friendships change, and that’s OK,” she says.

Dana helps kids build skills to become ‘friendship ninjas’, describing this as an empowering way for kids to think about themselves and their friendships. These ninja tricks are well-defined and can be rehearsed with kids.

“We don’t just naturally learn how to do friendship, or relationships very well through osmosis. So that’s why we need to be very explicit in our instruction for children.”

Dana Kerford’s friendship ninja tricks

Teach your child how to introduce themselves

Learning how to introduce themselves is a good place for kids to start. Teach them to make sure they have “kind and friendly” body language and to look the other person in the eyes and then put out their hand and say: ‘Hi, my name is…’

Dana suggests roleplaying this or using teddy bears and toys at home for little ones to help them feel comfortable practicing these skills.

“It’s clearing those neural pathways in the brain so that it feels very natural and organic for children,” she says.

Ask and pass

Dana teaches children to be ‘interested’ and ‘interesting’ – the second and third ‘i’s’ after eye contact. This includes asking a question after introducing themselves.

“Children often do not know how to have a conversation, which is why when we’re talking to them, we sometimes feel like we’re talking to a brick wall,” Dana says.

This is where the concept of ‘ask and pass’ comes in, which she describes as like a game of catch.

“The idea is that I might say, ‘Hi, my name is Dana, what’s your name?’ That’s like throwing you the ball.

“We want to try to find something that we have in common with them. So maybe we say, ‘Do you play soccer?’ or ‘What activities do you do outside of school?’”

She suggests physically practicing this – perhaps throwing a toy to illustrate the ‘catch’ or back and forth nature of how a conversation should work.

Dana says once the kids find an area of commonality – something they’re both interested in – it’s like planting a seed for a new friendship to grow.

Have a ‘quick question’ ready for awkward moments

Dana teaches kids to have a strategy for when they hit an awkward moment with new friends – known as the ‘quick question’. They need to lock this into their minds to use if they hit an awkward patch with a child they’re talking to.

“For example, as a grown-up I ask someone: ‘Tell me about where you grew up?’ For kids it might be: ‘Do you have a pet at home?’ Or, ‘What’s your favourite subject at school?’”

Be an ‘inviter’ and ‘includer’

It’s important to empower children with the skills to build healthy friendships themselves – not just to sit back and wait for friendships to come to them, Dana says.

“A lot of kids will say, ‘I have no friends to play with at school. Nobody likes me.’ But they’re just sitting there waiting. We want them to be the ones to invite others.”

Dana suggests practicing inviting kids to play, but rather than saying, ‘Can I play with you guys?’ Or: ‘Can I play with you?’, teach them to say: ‘Do you want to play with me?’ and have a game in mind. For example, they might say: “Do you want to come and play with me on the monkey bars?”

“This subtle difference helps to take them from disempowered to empowered”, Dana says.

Be an includer

Help your child take responsibility for introducing their friend to another friend when the situation arises. If someone walks up to their group and they know that person, they need to say: ‘Hey Val, this is my friend Joe.’ Dana encourages children to then ‘ask and pass’ to help make that person feel included in the group.

Also, when a child comes up to join in with a group, teach your child to explain to them what the group is up to, so they feel included (particularly as the others may be absorbed in what they’re doing).

For older kids, Dana suggests standing in a horseshoe, rather than a closed circle. This is more inclusive, making it easier for children to come and go from the group.

Tips for shy kids

Kids need to be mindful they are not inadvertently sending the message they don’t want friends, or that they are unfriendly through their body language. This is particularly important for shy kids who can sometimes come off as looking unfriendly.

“Get comfortable putting your back up (straight), looking the person in the eye, maybe waving hello. And then we’re going to move towards helping (the child) feel strong and confident in using their voice and having a conversation, asking someone to play.”

Use the power of playdates

Sometimes all kids need to hotwire a new friendship into place is one-on-one time, Dana says. They can go from strangers to besties in a very short time if they’re given the chance to have uninterrupted time with a friend. It could be having a friend over to their house, meeting at a park, or inviting a friend to join them at the movies. These “high-quality connections” help lock in a friendship, Dana says.

Often at school, kids are trying to carve out one-on-one time with their friends – which can look like they’re excluding others. But school is not for playdates, so work to offer these opportunities outside of school, she says.

Choosing your friends

Another important lesson of Dana’s programme is that children don’t have to be friends with everyone.

“We see it in the classroom and in the real world, there are some people who bring out the best in us. And there are some people who bring out the worst.

“We want to be kind and friendly to everyone, but friendship is a relationship that we choose.”

Dana’s website UR Strong offers free membership for parents and includes a variety of resources and videos for parents keen to help support their children in navigating friendship effectively.

Learn how to teach you child to deal with friendship conflicts >>

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