“The greatest sweetener of human life is friendship.” — Joseph Addison, British essayist
Friendships help children gain confidence, explore new ways of thinking, develop a sense of identity, learn what works in relationships and what doesn’t, and practice critical social skills like conflict resolution, trust-building and empathy. Kenneth H. Rubin, Ph.D., director of the Center for Children, Relationships & Culture at the University of Maryland and author of The Friendship Factor, suggests that parents take a coaching role to help their children master the fine art of friendship. Regardless of your child’s age, he suggests, keep the lines of communication open, offer opinions, bring up aspects of social situations that it would be wise for the child to consider, and set reasonable limits — all without getting overly involved.
Learning the Basics of Friendship
Children initially learn basic social rules like sharing, cooperation and respect for others through play. They find that others have their own feelings and ideas, and discover what behaviors result in pleasant versus unpleasant interactions with others.
Parents can help by providing plenty of opportunities for their child to be with other children, especially in unstructured, open play settings.
“Parents may assume that kids know how to make friends — but they don’t,” says Dr. Teri Manger, private-practice and school psychologist in Brooklyn. “Parents need to teach and model basic friend-making skills for children.”
“In Manhattan, it’s difficult for children to have spontaneous friendships. Everything is a playdate — likely organized by your nanny,” points out Dr. Sara L. Weiss, clinical psychologist based in Gramercy Park, and public education coordinator for the New York State Psychological Association. She suggests that parents arrange and attend initial play dates, to observe the other children, parents, and nannies, then have your nanny continue the playdates. She also suggests occasionally dropping in to playdates unannounced.
Teach and model basic friend-making skills for your child. Dr. Rubin suggests teaching your child how to join a group of children at play by watching what the other children are doing, listening to their conversations, moving in closer and then “easing in”. Teach your child to make basic introductions: “I’m Tim. What’s your name?” Help your child recognize cues about how others are feeling (smiling, frowning, crying) and empathetic ways to respond.
Preschooler Friendship Troubles
“Problems occur when parents intervene when kids are arguing or having a conflict,” Dr. Weiss cautions. Parental intervention may even lead to strain between the parents. “Let kids work things out,” she advises.
More complex problems may occur if a child’s basic nature is either shy or aggressive. However, in his 25 years of research on children’s friendships, Dr. Rubin has found that children whose basic temperaments cause difficulty in making friends can, over time and with appropriate parental help, learn effective skills to overcome those difficulties.
Protecting shy children from uncomfortable social settings may only exacerbate shyness. Instead, role-play with your child on how to join a group. Get your child together with other children, offer gentle encouragement, then step back and be as non-intrusive as possible. Afterward, acknowledge your child’s efforts in engaging with others.
If your child displays aggressive behavior toward others, first clearly let your child know such behavior is unacceptable. Help him understand how these actions cause difficulty in making friends. Help him observe others’ feelings, including nonverbal cues like body language, facial expressions and tone of voice, and find alternative ways to express his own feelings.
Choosing and Keeping Friends
When your child enters school, choosing, establishing and maintaining friendships become essential skills.
Michael Thompson, Ph.D., author of Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children, cautions, “It’s a myth that parents can pick and choose whom their child likes and wants to spend time with.” Your child will gravitate toward certain children on her own.
However, you can help your child think about what she likes and doesn’t like about other children. Open discussion of what makes for a “good friend” can help your child make better choices and improve her own skills at being a friend.
Talk with your child about his strengths, talents and interests and explore additional opportunities outside school for your child to find friends with common interests.
Pleasantville, Westchester-based Dr. Pilar Wellansky, who runs “Friendship Builders” programs for kids who have trouble making and keeping friends, suggests helping children develop a repertoire of topics with which they can start a conversation when meeting new kids. “There are certain ways to start a conversation that don’t necessarily occur to a child naturally,” she points out.
Elementary Friendship Dilemmas
“Best friends” are important to elementary schoolers — and conflict with a best friend can be devastating.
When conflicts arise, Dr. Rubin suggests helping your child think through the situation and possible solutions with open-ended questions. Ask, “How are you feeling toward your friend right now? What might your friend be feeling? What are some different ways you could resolve the conflict? What do you think would happen if…?”
Children also need to understand the basics of making apologies when they’ve hurt a friend. Teach them to think about what they’ve done, how to say “I’m sorry,” how to let the friend know they will change their behavior so it doesn’t happen again, and how to ask what they can do to set things right.
The middle school years are largely about sizing up, comparing and figuring out where you fit into the social hierarchy of cliques and groups. Help your tween to think critically about cliques, the experts say. Ask about the different groups that exist at school — who belongs to which groups, why, and what your tween thinks about these groups. Ask how she feels about where she fits in, and watch for additional non-verbal clues. Minimize the potential negative impact of school cliques by offering ample opportunities for your tween to get involved with others outside of school.
“Friendships made outside the school setting give kids opportunities to reinvent themselves,” says Dr. Weiss. “When kids aren’t in their regular ‘community’, they can try out different sides of themselves that they may not be able to do in their school community.” Friendships made at camp can be especially intense, because kids are with each other all day, every day. Dr. Weiss suggests supporting your tween in getting together with camp friends even after camp is over. “Get to know the parents as well as the friend,” she advises. “Invite them to your home for a visit, and try to visit their home as well, to be sure your child will be in a safe and healthy environment when visiting.”
“It’s so critical to network with other parents,” says Dr. Manger, “especially as your child goes through middle and high school.” Introduce yourself at the earliest opportunity. Invite other parents to your home. Exchange work, home and cell phone numbers and email addresses so you can contact each other readily. Talk openly about the challenges you’re facing as parents. Check in with other parents about how they handle various situations and the rules they’ve set with their tweens. Connect with the parents when your tween is visiting at a friend’s house and invite them to do the same.
Burning Issues on the Tween Scene
“Popularity” becomes a burning issue at this stage for many kids. “Even parents get caught up in whether their kids are ‘popular’ or not,” says Dr. Weiss.
Dr. Rubin cautions that popularity is not necessarily something to aspire to. His research shows that the most popular kids are not necessarily the most decent. “If you ask kids who the most popular boys or girls are, you’ll get pretty consistent answers,” he says. “But if you ask kids who they would most like to be friends with, it isn’t the popular kids.”
If your tween is among the “popular” crowd, talk about how he uses the power that accompanies popularity, recommends Dr. Thompson. Let your tween know that using that power to exclude or belittle others through teasing or bullying is unacceptable. Instead, encourage your tween to use “popularity power” in positive ways. Help your tween understand that being popular and being a good leader are not the same thing.
If your tween is the one being excluded or teased, listen and show empathy. Reality-test your tween’s perceptions that s/he is being snubbed by asking questions like, “What other reasons might there be for Alex to have walked past you and not spoken to you?” Dr. Rubin suggests several strategies to teach kids to deal with teasing: Stand up straight and look the other person in the eye, laugh and shrug off the teasing comments, or, possibly, agree with the teaser (“I know, this is an ugly shirt, isn’t it?”).
However, pay close attention to possible signs of bullying, including reluctance to go to school, wariness, or withdrawal. Encourage your child to talk about what’s going on. Dr. Rubin cautions that it’s generally not helpful for parents to offer to step in immediately. Gather information and brainstorm with your child about possible options to address the situation (avoid the bully, talk with the bully, request peer mediation, talk with a teacher or other adult in the setting where the bullying is happening). Continue to monitor the situation, and if your child’s plan of action isn’t working, you may need to intervene by talking with the other child’s parents or with a teacher or coach who may be able to observe what’s happening.
It’s All About the Friends
After the angst of the tween years, the good news is that by high school, cliques diminish in power and teens form ties with more broadly defined groups, says Dr. Rubin. You’re also likely to see a lot less of your teen, as they tend to spend twice as much time with friends as with families.
However, Dr. Manger says, “You have more power as a parent than you may think to continue to influence your teen.” Continue the open dialogue with your teen about friendships and really listen to your teen. Ask how s/he is feeling about things that are going on with friends. Use every opportunity to talk about current teen issues, the pressures your teen is facing and acknowledge how hard it is.
Stay tuned in to whom your teen is friends with and set clear expectations that they will let you know where they are, who they’re with, what they’ll be doing, and when they’ll be home. Continue networking with other parents. Be aware of current teen issues and events in the school and community.
A common parental concern with teens is possible involvement with a “bad crowd”. If you’re concerned about your teen’s friends, first be sure you aren’t jumping to premature conclusions. Invite them to your house, then quietly and unobtrusively observe.
If you continue to be concerned, make sure you’re clear on what specific things you don’t like about these friends. Talk with your teen about what he likes and doesn’t like about the others and calmly express your specific concerns.
“You can ‘differentially reinforce’ certain friendships,” Dr. Manger observes, “by tuning into the interests of friends you approve of and offering to let your teen invite those friends on a related outing.” Invite those friends and their families to your home. Finally, continue to help your teen expand his or her circle of friends through involvement in a wide variety of activities.
“Children’s friendships are at the heart of their existence,” says Dr. Thompson. “Their friends are the air they breathe and the water they swim in.” With your coaching and support, your child can learn the skills necessary for a lifetime of meaningful friendships.
Preschoolers thru Elementary:
—How to Be a Friend: A Guide to Making Friends and Keeping Them, by Laurie Krasney Brown & Marc Brown
—Will I Have a Friend?, by Miriam Cohen
—The Care and Keeping of Friends, by Nadine Bernard Westcott
—Stick Up for Yourself: Every Kid's Guide to Personal Power & Positive Self-Esteem, by Gershen Kaufman, Lev Raphael & Pamela Espeland
—Cliques, Phonies, & Other Baloney, by Trevor Romain
—Life Lists for Teens: Tips, Steps, Hints, and How-Tos for Growing Up, Getting Along, Learning, and Having Fun, by Pamela Espeland
—The How Rude! Handbook of Friendship & Dating Manners for Teens, by Alex J. Packer
—The Friendship Factor, by Kenneth H. Rubin, Ph.D. & Andrea Thompson
—Best Friends, Worst Enemies, by Michael Thompson, Ph.D. and Catherine O’Neill Grace with Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D.
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Dealing with peers —
Some friendship problems — not getting invited to a birthday party, sitting alone at lunch — seem minor. But left unchecked, trouble with peers can develop into severe issues. Around the country, teens have brought guns to school, either to scare classmates, or to kill them, and in almost every case, a repeated refrain is, “He didn’t have any friends.”
In the new book, Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me: The Top 25 Friendship Problems and How to Solve Them (Jossey-Bass, $14.95) Michele Borba, Ed.D., offers concrete solutions to many common friendship issues. Dr. Borba outlines the reasons we are having what she calls “a friendship crisis”. One surprising theory is organized sports: “There’s no opportunity for kids to form their own teams, make their own rules, learn to settle conflict and disputes, and just play for fun without worrying about pleasing their parents, winning that trophy, or getting that scholarship,” she contends.
The book puts the burden on parents; in many cases of friend-less children, the parents are not involved in their kids’ lives. But this book will help parents tackle specific concerns — a child who won’t share, is shy, or is overly competitive — and help them better navigate childhood.
Another new book addresses shy children. Nurturing the Shy Child: Practical Help for Raising Confident and Socially Skilled Kids and Teens (St. Martin’s Press, $23.95), by the married team, Barbara G. Markway, Ph.D., and Gregory P. Markway, Ph.D., is for parents whose children are painfully shy, even to the point of selective mutism (when children are so overcome by anxiety in social situations that they are rendered mute). There are chapters on breathing techniques and cognitive therapies, facing fears through exposure therapy, along with how to seek professional help.