Helping Children to Have Friendly Conversations

Helping Children to Have Friendly Conversations

It’s February and we are focusing on helping children to make (and keep) friends. Friends can be really important in children’s lives. They can help children to have better self-esteem and to be better able to make it through tough times. Being able to make and keep friends also helps children to develop and practice social skills that will continue to be important all through their lives. These skills include having conversations, being willing and able to share, and problem-solving when relationships get rocky. As a parent or teacher, you can help your child(ren) to learn these important skills. Today we are going to talk about how to teach your child to have a conversation.

For adults who have had lots of years to talk to people, conversations may seem easy. But there are actually a lot of steps to getting another person to engage in and stay focused on a conversation. And it’s important to make sure that your child knows what a conversation is. One way to explain might be to say, “You know, it is important to be friendly to other people. One of the ways to make a new friend or show someone that you like him is to talk to him. When you talk to someone and he talks back to you, you are having a conversation.”

Here’s a breakdown of some of the skills that your child needs to know in order to have a friendly conversation:

  • How to start a conversation. Children need to know how to get a conversation going. This might seem simple but young children (and even some older children and adults) often just walk up to someone and start talking, right in the middle of whatever thoughts they were having. This can certainly be confusing for the other person. Instead, children can learn to start a conversation with an introduction (if they don’t know the person) “Hi my name is. What is yours?”, or an opener (if they do know the person) “Hi. How are you today?”
  • Maintaining eye contact. Another important piece of having a conversation is maintaining eye contact with the other person. This can be hard for some children, particularly those whose attention wanders or who feel uncomfortable making eye contact. For children who may lose their focus, you can tell them to make quick “eye checks” every few seconds to make sure that they have looked at the other person’s eyes. If your child feels uncomfortable maintaining eye contact, you can teach her that looking at the bridge of the other person’s nose will work. That may make the child more comfortable because she is not looking directly into the other person’s eyes, but the other person will still feel like eye contact is being made.
  • Taking turns. Just like children need to learn to share toys with their friends, they also need to share the conversational “space”. Although children often want to tell their own stories and spend all of the time talking about themselves, they need to give their friends some time, too. You can introduce this idea like you would introduce the idea of sharing anything “When you are talking to your friend, you need to give him some time to talk, too. So you tell him your idea and then wait so that he can tell you what he thinks.
  • Active listening. Along with giving friends time to talk, children need to listen to what their friends are saying. This can be hard if your child is impatient to get her next thought out or has difficulty focusing for longer periods of time. One way to explain active listening is with the idea that if she wants her friends to pay attention when she is speaking, she has to do the same for them. You can teach your child behaviors that can increase listening, and let friends know that she is listening, such as maintaining eye contact, nodding her head, and saying things like “Wow!” or “That is interesting.”
  • Asking questions. This is a great way to start or keep a conversation going that also lets your child’s friends know that he is listening. Starter questions could be about anything but you can point out to your child that one way to get others talking is to ask them about themselves like “I really like Minecraft. Do you like it?” Questions to keep things going should ideally be on whatever topic they have been talking about. Another great way to keep things going and be friendly is to give another person a compliment. That can also lead to a question, such as “I really like your shirt. Is blue your favorite color?
  • Ending a conversation. Sometimes, young children finish talking and just abruptly walk away from the other person. It’s important to let your child know that she should say “Good-bye” and even better if she can end with a compliment like “It was nice to talk to you.” That will make it more likely that the person will want to talk with her again.

This is a lot to remember! The best ways to help your child learn conversational skills are to model and practice. So talk to your child. A LOT. Ask questions and listen to his answers. This way he will see how to start conversations and keep them going as well as how it looks to listen to the other person. And then have him practice starting a conversation with you, keeping it going with questions and statements, and ending it politely. You could challenge each other by learning new facts to tell each other, or even new jokes! Practicing conversations have the added benefits of being special time together and of boosting your child’s vocabulary. This is a great way to get creative, have fun, and teach your child a social skill that will help him throughout his life!

Image: © Susan Leggett |



Katherine Pears
Dr. Katherine Pears is a senior scientist at Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC). She earned her Ph.D in clinical psychology and has worked with OSLC since 1998. Katherine is the principal investigator and co-developer of the Kids In Transition to Schools (KITS) program. Currently, she oversees all the clinical and research activities for KITS. When she’s not in her office, you’ll find Katherine in the kitchen whipping up her latest creation or outdoors hiking a scenic trail.


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