make friendsWhen back-to-school season rolls around, it’s no surprise we’re just as worried about our kids making friends as we are about them making the grade. What if your kid gets picked on? What if your daughter is shy? What if your son freezes up when meeting the new kids in class? 

Every kid experiences blows to their ego again and again throughout school—it’s part of growing up. As these incidents occur, the most important thing your kid can learn is how to let it all roll off. 

This is called “resilience”—maintaining or regaining confidence after rejection, says Geraldine Oades-Sese, PhD, director of the Research Lab for Resilience and Early Childhood Development at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “The resilient child knows, ‘Even though
I don’t know these kids, I know I can make friends.’ ” 

Resilience may sound like a big lesson for a little kid, but children are naturally good at it, and what’s more, they can practice to get even better. Here’s what to do to help your kid become a friend magnet this year. 

Practice Problem-Solving

Role-play problem-solving scenarios with your child, Oades-Sese suggests. For your kindergartner, practice the steps he might take if a friend took his toy without asking. Elementary kids can practice what to do if they are left out of a game; middle schoolers can talk about how to cope with unkind words.

Look at Body Language

How you hold yourself sends signals to others about your state of mind, and a positive outlook attracts friends, says Oades-Sese. Practice what a confident stance looks like in front of a mirror— head up, straight spine, smiling face, chin forward—and talk about how it compares to a less positive one: a frowning face, head down, slouchy spine and hunched shoulders. 

Dress for Success

A favorite superhero shirt can make your kid feel like a million bucks, even if you had other, fancier plans. As long as it fits within your school’s dress code guidelines, let him wear it if it makes him happy and confident.

Remind Them of Their Strengths

Knowing what you’re good at builds self-confidence and self-worth, says Oades-Sese. Try to remind kids of their many talents. Be extra complementary (though keep it authentic) and offer specific, encouraging observations that relate to your kid’s innate abilities. For example, instead of saying, “You’re really good at soccer,” say, “That was a killer pass!” 

Remember to Breathe

Three deep breaths can work wonders in a tricky situation, says Midge Leavey, mindfulness educator and author of The Missing Mommy Cure. Practice with your kids at home: In difficult moments (when they’re mad at a sibling or frustrated by something you’ve said) have them pause, plant their feet and breathe. As their body calms, they’ll be more able to respond thoughtfully rather than emotionally. Think of it as homework for your child’s next test of friendship.

Catch Your Kid Doing Good

Notice when your child is helpful, positive, creative, caring or brave—and let her know, says Oades-Sese. You might say, “That was a great way of tackling that difficult situation,” or, “I like the way you stood up for your friend when those kids were being mean to her.” Acknowledging when your kids do good helps build up their confidence and makes them more inclined to repeat the behavior.

Set Up a Playdate

Give kids a head start on making  friends at school by scheduling a one-on-one playdate before the first day or early on in the year. Contact your school’s PTA for help meeting a family whose child will be in class with yours. See if there’s a Facebook group or email list for your kid’s grade. Check if your school has parent partners, class moms or mentor families who can help you meet people. Recognizing a couple friendly faces in a sea of strangers on that first day goes a long way to ease confidence-cracking jitters.

Join the Club

Sports teams, social groups and afterschool activities put your kid in contact with people who share a common interest. Kids also often connect with peers more easily in smaller group settings than in the classroom, making it easier to meet new friends. 

Host Your Own Back-to-School Bash

Planning a back-to-school party during the first few weeks of school gives your kid a chance to get to know a classroom full of people before the school year really kicks off. And for some kids, making friends with Mom and Dad around is easier and more comfortable than doing it on their own. 

Set Up a Real-Life Social Network

Help your kids identify the grownups who can help them navigate any in-school challenges, like teachers, their counselor or a bus driver. If you sense your child is drawn to a particular school official, highlight that connection by pointing out this is someone your child can turn to, says Oades-Sese. For an older child, encourage a couple of key connections with non-school related, trusted adults. Your best friend, an aunt or uncle or a grandparent can provide trustworthy support for your child when you’re not available or if your child wants to talk to someone other than a parent.

Assure Them You’re a Great Listener

Don’t overlook the basics: Tell your child he can come talk to you at any time, about anything, Oades-Sese says. Your reassurance is important. And when your child comes to you for guidance, make him glad that he did—stop what you’re doing, put the phone down, look him in the eye and give him your full attention.

Avoid the Dreaded “Fine” Answer

To get the most out of your “How was school today?” conversation, wait until you’re already connected with your child to ask. Get in your kid’s zone by joining in on something she loves: Play catch with your kindergartner in the yard, share a video game with your elementary kid, talk during drive time or a frozen yogurt treat with your middle schooler. Your conversation has a better chance to go beyond the basics when your kid is already enjoying hanging out with you.

Jennifer Derryberry Mann is a freelance writer and mom of two kids who loves teaching prenatal yoga and creating community.