Most of us can look back at our schooldays and remember fondly the hours spent playing and talking with our friends. Sometimes these school friend relationships don’t survive the transition to adulthood and the emerging of an independent personality. Other times, an early friendship may develop into a lifelong friendship.

But no matter how brief or lasting, childhood friendships play an important role in the way we develop as adults.

In psychological terms, interacting with friends helps children to develop such important attributes as physical skill, language ability, how to solve problems, and showing consideration to others. Without friends children can loose confidence in themselves, suffer low selfesteem and feel sad and stressed.

Children who have friends are likely to feel happy and enjoy their time at school. Those who form strong positive friendships in primary school are also less likely to develop behavioral and emotional problems later in their teenage years. Their friends can provide support and encouragement when dealing with difficult issues and an informal forum to share the confusion and worries of adolescence.

For some children, already existing behavioral problems will make it difficult for them to make friends. Aggressive and negative children are often rejected by their peers, who simply don’t want to play with a child who bullies, bosses or hurts other children.

A lack of basic social skills, coupled with rejection by peers is likely to see a child gravitate toward other disruptive and aggressive children. Rather than forming positive friendships, they may find the membership of a group or gang that encourages antisocial behavior such as stealing or skipping school a more preferable alternative.

As parents it is therefore important that we encourage our children to make friends during their school years. However it is the right of every parent to judge the positive and negative influences of certain friendships on their child. It is a good idea to encourage your child to invite their friends over to play at home so that you know how your child acts among their peers.

Making friends in childhood, as in adult life, differs depending on personality. Some people just seem born to have a wide circle of friends. They may be popular through their outgoing nature, verbal skills and genuine interest in people and relationships. That doesn’t mean however that the quieter, shyer personalities amongst us should suffer.

If you think your child is having problems making friends there are steps you can take to help them gain confidence and skills without attempting to change their basic nature.

It is important to discuss with your child any problems you think they might have making friends. You might not always be right about your concerns. Some children just don’t talk very much to adults about their friends or activities at school, or may be more outgoing away from the family environment.

If your child is finding it hard to form friendships, discussing with them things such as who they talk to at school, what they have tried in the past and what they think might work in the future can often help your child feel more positive about their own ability to make friends. Talking with your child’s teacher or other adults who know your child can provide useful feedback on how your child behaves around other children.

So what are some practical suggestions to help your child make friends?

First, it is good to remember that one major way children learn how to interact with other people is by watching how their parents deal with others. If you talk to people in a polite and friendly way, your child will see this and be more likely to model such behavior themselves.

To reinforce this incidental type of learning, you could draw up a list of behaviors that help encourage friendships, such as using a friendly voice, sharing toys, asking for things politely, smiling, and taking turns when playing.

You can also help your child learn these skills by practicing them in the form of a fun role-playing game. Ask your child to practice using all the skills on your list, with you pretending to be one of their school friends. Be sure to answer any questions your child has about the process of making friends.

Remember too to give your child lots of positive feedback for their efforts in making friends. If you praise your child when they try new skills it will increase their chances of success through encouraging them to keep trying.

Apart from individual skills, there are of course certain activities other than at school that can provide ample opportunities for friendships. If your child shows any interest in sport or other pursuits like music, craft or scouts, then encourage them to join a group. These will present ideal situations for your child to meet other children and make friends.

Of course, if your child’s personality is not attuned toward certain activities, don’t try to force them to join a group they will not be interested in.

Dr. Matthew Sanders is a clinical psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia and founder of the Triple P - Positive Parenting Program.