Friendship is such an important aspect of children’s lives. It gives them a sense of belonging, builds self-esteem and develops social skills. As parents, we try to encourage great friendships. But just like the relationships we have as adults, there are bound to be ups and downs in the relationships our children have.
So how can we support our children as they develop friendships?
1. Foster empathy and sympathetic concern for others
Children learn to empathise, care, and consider other perspectives firstly by the example set for them by the adults around them, and then by participating in activities that help others.
Help your child to name their feeling. As they understand their own feelings, they will also begin to understand the feelings of others. Talk to your child about how other people may be feeling, and why. Discuss how their actions might make others feel: “When you do/say that, I feel…” but also acknowledge their own feelings. “It’s okay to feel …” is a really powerful statement and helps children to develop their understanding of their own feelings and those of others.
Children can also learn to empathise and sympathise with others by helping. Have young ones start by helping you with simple tasks, such as creating a get-well card for a sick friend, collecting unused toys for children’s hospitals, or making cookies for a neighbour. Encourage older children to get involved in charities and fundraising events.
2. Coach kids on how to cope with tricky social situations
Just like we need to train for sporting events or practise new physical and academic skills, learning how to cope with tricky social situations is not something that will always come naturally to children. When they have a disagreement with a friend, feel that they have no one to play with at recess or lunch, or feel like they don’t have a voice — this can cause stress and anxiety. When your child experiences a tricky social situation, give them the opportunity to come up with some solutions to try to work through it. Then encourage them to practise so that next time they are faced with a tricky social situation, they have some tools they are comfortable and confident using.
3. When possible, let kids try to work things out on their own
One of the hardest things we can do as parents is to sit back and let our kids fail. So, in an attempt to protect them from being hurt, we often step in and take over. However, if we do this, they will never learn how to deal with difficult things themselves. Building friendships is the same. We want to help them have great friends, but children need to be able to build these friendships on their own, to be able to use these skills as adults. Nobody wants their mum organising playdates for them when they are 30! So, if they have a disagreement with a friend, are facing a tricky social situation or are having difficulty building friendships, coach them, provide opportunities for them to practise building social and problem-solving skills, and then let try it on their own. Don’t rescue them constantly. Although it might help them in the moment, it doesn’t help them when you aren’t around, and it doesn’t help them to develop the skills they need to be able to function well as adults.
4. Be aware of social media relationships
When your child begins to use social media, it is incredibly important to put expectations and boundaries in place. As a family, take the time to discuss how they should be using social media, and be aware of what they are using and who they are communicating with. Make it a condition of use, that you as a parent, will check on what they are doing… and do it. Not in a judgemental way but in a way that ensures open communication.
5. Watch out for bullying
If you suspect your child is being bullied or your child is bullying others, you need to step in and help your child. Contact the school and discuss your concerns.
The important thing is that it is dealt with swiftly and with honesty, openness and respect so that all parties involved are able to receive the help they need.
If you are unsure about how your child is going socially, talk to them. Give them opportunities to discuss what is going on. Some children will be happy to tell you, but others might find it hard. You can encourage your child by telling them about friendship trouble you had a child or by reading a story about friendship troubles. If they aren’t ready to talk, let them know they can always come to you when they are ready.
It may also be good to take the time to contact your child’s teacher and discuss any concerns you have with them so you can support and encourage your child as a team.
Written by Helen Gale, Year 6 Classroom Teacher.