By School Social Worker Liam McCann, LCSW
Resources gathered from: Melbourne Child Psychology and School Psychology Services
All parents want to protect their children from the challenges that life throws at them, and navigating the complicated and highly emotional world of friendship-forming is no different. But, like most ongoing processes of life and growing up, there’s only so much you can do to support their journey, and getting too involved can often do more harm than good.
“Parents need to view these situations as opportunities to teach their child valuable life lessons”
– Friendship expert Dana Kerford.
Controlling your children’s friendships while they are young won’t help them to nurture positive relationships in the future. So, like most aspects of parenting, the best thing you can do is to help teach them life skills that they can work with and continue developing on their own.
In saying that, here are some Do’s and Don’ts for getting involved in your kid’s friendships.
- Redefine “friendship troubles” as opportunities to learn.
Good social skills are largely learnt for most people, and get better with practice. And most people will experience some tumultuous social situations in their lives, whether it’s with friends, partners or work colleagues (most likely all 3!). So learning how to deal with these situations early on is a skill that will benefit your kids throughout the rest of their lives.
Reframing difficult encounters as an opportunity to develop these skills will help to prepare your kids for what social life will throw at them, while also strengthening their resilience and empathy.
- Listen and empathize.
Engage with them about what has happened and how they’re feeling, without judgment, when they’re encountering problems with friends.
Kids want to feel validated and understood – just like adults do – and taking the time out to speak with them about their concerns and emotions will help them to feel that way.
Kerford recommends asking direct, specific questions: “Often children have a hard time articulating what’s going on, they just ‘feel bad’. Help them put a voice to it by digging deeper.”
This process of identifying our emotions is key; recognizing our emotions helps us to understand them and to deal with them productively.
Also, be sure not to downplay the significance of the things that are upsetting them; what may seem insignificant to an adult can be heart-breaking for a child. Minimizing their experience won’t help them to process their experience in a positive way.
- Encourage them to stand up for themselves.
Telling kids to “walk away” or “ignore” the person they’re having problems with is too passive and minimizing. Instead, encourage your kids to confront their problems, and not to accept bad behavior.
Kerford suggests asking your kids what they would do differently if the situation happened again, and role-playing different scenarios to build up their confidence.
- Teach kids the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships.
This is something that many people don’t fully comprehend until well into adulthood, but learning early-on sets positive boundaries for future relationships.
Mutual respect and trust are “must haves” in healthy relationships.
Your children should understand that a good friend will make them feel good about themselves; if one of their friends doesn’t, they should minimize the amount of time they spend with them.
- Avoid the term “bully”.
Kerford suggests replacing it with the term “mean on-purpose”. This is because “bully” is somewhat of a buzzword that is often misused and leads to unfair mislabelling of other kids.
“Mean on-purpose”, in contrast, is a more transparent term that kids can easily understand. You can teach your kids how to respond to “mean on-purpose” behavior with a quick comeback, such as “not cool” or simply “that was really mean”.
This is a way for them to stand up for themselves, and confront the bad behavior.
- As always, lead by example.
It comes up time and time again, because it’s a golden truth: children are sponges, and their parents/caregivers are the most influential figures in their lives.
If they see you acting aggressively, they are likely to mirror your behavior in other situations. Remember that they are always watching, so behave in front of them as you would want them to behave when you’re not around!
- Tell stories from your own experiences.
Remind your kids that you were once their age, and that you went through the same experiences. This will be comforting and reassure them that their troubles are not insurmountable, while helping to strengthen your relationship and bond.