“I have no friends.” This is what Alan, a 10 year old patient of mine said to me. However, after speaking to his mother, I realized he had plenty of other children who wanted to play and spend time with him. His problem was not that he didn’t have friends; it was his perception of not having enough friends. Interestingly, this is something many kids (and adults) often feel. We are hardwired to desire and acquire friends as being well-supported socially is good for our survival. Thus, friendships are really important for people of all ages - children and adults alike. Parents can certainly help kids with the ups and downs of friendships.
Friendships will change over time depending on the age of your child. In young children, parents can easily decide who their children see and don't see. Older children begin to manage friendships themselves and their social relationships become more complex with the pressure to be like everyone else constantly escalating. Parents of teens have less control over their children's friendships and many teenagers become especially interested in friends.
In their child’s friendships, parents are smart to get involved - but not too involved. It is a good idea to know who your child is friends with, what drew your child to that friend, what hobbies they share, and if possible - get to know that child’s parents too. Come from a place of curiosity and interest, not suspicion or judgment.
Encourage diverse friendships that will expose your child to new interests and ideas. In fact, a study in the Journal of Child Development, found that diverse friendships cause children to feel safer in school and have more positive views about others. Support your child's friends to spend time at your house where you can be aware of their activities and interests. Remember kids can still have fun even though you remain firm with appropriate house rules – even when friends are over.
If you don’t want your child to be bossy or a mindless follower in peer situations, teach him/her healthy assertiveness. Explain the importance of having your own opinions while also considering the needs of others. Role-play different ways of doing this with your child, to show them how to properly respond during different scenarios.
Peer pressure can be seen as a positive influence that can help kids behave according to social norms and values. But, peer pressure can also have a negative impact. Sometimes parents can have concerns about their child being negatively influenced by a friend. If so, express concerns openly and listen to your child's point of view. Don't criticize the person directly, but rather discuss the concerning behavior. Discuss the need that the friendship may fill in your child’s life and talk about the qualities that make a good friend. Allowing a concerning friendship to run its course will often work better than trying to stop it yourself.
Even though friends and peers heavily influence our children, parents are still their biggest influence. So even though your kids may be really into their friends, you still provide the most important guidance in their lives.