4 skills for making friends

By Lexi Walters Wright

At a glance

  • Kids need social skills to make and keep friends.

  • Some kids have a hard time with these skills or take longer to develop them.

  • There are activities you can do to practice these skills.

To learn a sport or a new subject in school, kids need specific skills. The same goes for making friends. 

Some kids naturally develop the skills involved in making friends, starting at a young age. Others need a bit more time. And some kids have underlying challenges that make it harder to make and keep friends

These challenges include:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Anxiety
  • Impulsivity
  • Trouble with focus
  • Trouble with social skills
  • Delayed language

Here are four types of skills needed to make friends and how to help kids build them up.

1. Starting conversations

Launching into a conversation may seem simple. But think about what it actually requires: Do kids know how to join a group conversation? Can they think of appropriate topics to chat about that interest other kids? Do they know how to tell if it’s the right time to even have a conversation? 

Kids struggle with starting conversations in different ways. If they’re impulsive, for example, they might burst into conversation without any greeting. If they don’t read social situations well, they might say something inappropriate. 

How to build this skill

Teach kids and model basic greeting phrases to use with familiar people (“Hi, how are you?”) and with unfamiliar people (“Hi, I’m Megan. I’m in Ms. Smith’s class.”). 

At home, practice starting conversations together. At school, give effective praise when students start conversations in an appropriate way.

2. Picking up on social cues 

Social cues are part of how we communicate. We read body language, people’s facial expressions, or the pitch and tone of their voices. These cues help us know when to stop talking, switch topics, or step back because we’re standing too close to someone.

But kids who struggle with language or social skills may have trouble picking up on social cues. They may not read situations well, either. They might need help recognizing when a person is no longer interested or needs to end a conversation. 

How to build this skill

Point out some nonverbal cues people use when they’re trying to end a conversation, like checking the time, turning away, or yawning. 

You can also teach verbal cues that show someone is trying to end a conversation, like not answering questions or saying “I should go.”

3. Following social rules 

Following social rules is key to making friends. Kids have to learn these rules, like how to take turns when talking and how to pay attention to others when they’re speaking. But it can be hard for some kids. They may take over a conversation or not know how to apologize if they accidentally push a classmate. They also may not know appropriate ways to show they’re interested when someone else is talking.

How to build this skill

Teach kids how to ask follow-up questions to show they’ve heard and are interested in what the other person is saying. You can even give scripted examples to practice and use. 

At home, role-playing can help with this skill, especially as kids learn to stay on-topic and maintain focus during a social interaction.

4. Listening to others

Listening is a key part of the give-and-take of friendships. If kids are always interrupting or talking nonstop, they risk turning off potential friends.

To listen, kids need to first be able to stop what they’re doing (that includes talking), pay attention, and know when it’s appropriate to respond. Some kids naturally understand what to do. Others might need to work on picking up social cues or understanding social rules. 

How to build this skill

Reminders and role-playing can be helpful. Come up with a signal for when kids are talking too much or need to tune in to the person who is talking.  Want to know more about helping kids make and keep friends? Get tips for teaching about social cues. And listen to an expert explain how to teach kids about personal space.

Key takeaways

  • Some kids have a hard time making conversation and picking up on social cues.

  • Kids can learn specific social skills to improve how they make and keep friends.

  • Role-playing and modeling can help kids learn these skills.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Lexi Walters Wright is the former Community Manager at Understood. As a writer and editor, she helps parents make more informed choices for their children and for themselves.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Andrew Kahn, PsyD is a licensed psychologist who has served as an evaluator and consultant in public schools for nearly 20 years. Dr. Kahn identifies as neurodivergent and serves as a subject matter expert at Understood.