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?
“How to be a good friend is not a skill that we are all born with,” says Dr. DeAnn Harvey, child psychologist at Franciscan St. Francis Health. “It is a learned behavior that starts with our first and most important teachers – our parents.”
Harvey says parents should focus on modeling good friendship behaviors, especially when it comes to conflict resolution. “If we primarily model aggressive means to resolve conflict our children will learn to resolve interpersonal conflict via the use of aggression,” she explains. A more effective approach is to promote the concept of assertiveness.
“Assertiveness involves stating your opinion in a respectful manner while at the same time considering the views of others,” Harvey says. “On the other hand, aggressiveness involves attacking others and forcing your opinion upon them.”
When children feel confident in their ability to assert feelings and opinions, they are less likely to become entangled in inequitable friendships. Even confident, assertive kids can benefit from parental guidance when it comes to making friends.
The preschool and elementary years
Harvey suggests approaching the issue from a teaching perspective during the preschool and early elementary years. “During play times parents still need to be providing periods of supervision where they are observing how the children are interacting,” she says. “One emphasis at this age is learning how to share and how to take turns.”
When a problem does crop up, Harvey emphasizes parental modeling as a way to exemplify appropriate interactions, and praising younger children when they demonstrate good friendship skills. She also points to behavioral modification techniques as a means to address poor interaction skills, for instance consequences like losing a toy in response to issues with sharing.
The mid-elementary years
As children move into the mid-elementary years, Harvey says relationship issues tend to increase. At this stage, she recommends encouraging kids to engage in their own conflict resolution. “When your child comes to you voicing conflict with a friend, the parent can sit down with their own child and discuss options on how to deal with it and then strongly encourage them to ‘work it out.’”
Harvey does not typically recommend parents contact other parents to discuss conflicts at this age, however. “Intervening in this manner can actually backfire and it doesn’t help your child’s social and emotional development,” she explains. “If we fight their battles we are not allowing them the opportunity to learn how to resolve conflicts.”
She suggests encouraging your child to expand their circle of friends so they don’t need to rely on only one or two.
The teen years
Laying the groundwork for comfortable communication early on will help into the teenage years. “This provides you the opportunity to provide support and help with problem-solving,” Harvey says, “with the end goal of your teen choosing how they want to resolve the conflict on their own, knowing you will be there to provide support regardless of how it turns out.”
Harvey points out that parents should address the importance of social communication in today’s tech-heavy environment. “Teens need to be encouraged and actually taught how to still communicate with their friends by talking face-to-face or talking on the phone rather than texting,” she says. “Written text does not communicate emotion or meaning effectively and is easily misinterpreted, causing unnecessary conflict between friends.” Harvey says parents should keep a close watch and intervene right away if their teenager is engaging in self-demeaning or self-destructive behavior.
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.