Navigating the waters of childhood friendships can be surprisingly difficult for parents. How do help your kids learn how to make friends? What if your child has a friend you don’t like? Should you intervene when a friend mistreats your child or let him resolve the situation on his own?
Preschool and early elementary years
Cobin Trout, therapist at Compass Point Counseling Services, says that for preschoolers, the concept of friendship is brand new. “Often, up until this point, they have interacted mostly with parents, siblings and extended family members.” Trout says social experiences in the classroom can lead to anxiousness, frustration or confusion. In turn, parents may be tempted to advise their child to stay away from certain peers. It is more effective to equip your child with relational skills to deal with these situations. “You could respond by giving the child directions on how to respectfully express how the other child’s actions are making him or her feel and set limits around how they want to be treated,” she suggests.
Trout says at this age, children tend to see things as black or white, so a misbehaving peer could be unfairly labeled “bad” by them. “Help children see that people are not one dimensional. Each child has strengths and weaknesses, and snap judgments interfere with the opportunity for new friendships.”
By the mid-elementary years, children become more self-aware and peer-influenced, which affects friend choices. This is a crucial time for parental guidance, especially when it comes to harmful relationships. “Red flags to be mindful of are changes in the overall mood of your child, overly focused on their outward looks, and only interacting with one or two individuals,” she says.
Trout suggests giving your child some guidelines to help them determine if they are involved in an unhealthy friendship. For example, being pressured to bully or alienate peers, or finding themselves changing in order to fit in. She also advises parents not to allow social media and smart phone use. “At this age children are not developmentally able to manage this aspect of social communication.”
Tweens and teens
The transition into the social world at this stage will be less dramatic if parents spend time setting a foundation for “social and relational intelligence,” Trout says. “Children that enter this phase with more social confidence and acceptance of others will be less likely to get caught up in the social drama that can be all-consuming for some adolescents.”
Trout suggests parents allow teens to resolve their own conflicts in ways that hopefully preserve otherwise healthy friendships. “If your child is open to it, be a sounding board for them, but don’t make the decisions for them.”
Parents do need to be mindful of potentially dangerous relationships. Beyond more obvious issues like illegal activities and safety concerns, Trout says parents should intervene “if you sense your child is rallying others to get involved in a conflict and gang up on another peer.”
Trout says it is prudent for parents to set limits on technology, and to talk to teens about social media. “Information that is not communicated directly face-to-face can often be hard to interpret,” she says. “Individuals will often communicate information over technology that they otherwise wouldn’t say face-to-face.”
Friendships play an important role in the lives of our kids – and in our lives as parents as well. By being aware of how you model what it means to be a good friend to the important people in your life, your children will see the benefit of investing in these relationships even when they can be challenging.