Though my work within the area of friendship has focused mostly on adults, the importance of friendship among children cannot be emphasized enough. I recently talked with psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D. about common difficulties seen among childhood friendships and how to overcome them. She is the co-author of the upcoming book “Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends,” and offers friendship advice for kids on her website Dr. Friendtastic.
Why pay attention to your child’s social life? Strong childhood friendships can make children feel happier, help them be more engaged in school, and make them less likely to be bullied, says Kennedy-Moore. “They make the hard times easier to bear, and the fun times more enjoyable.” It’s not that your child has to have dozens of friends or be in the popular crowd. It’s about their feeling connected. “There are a lot of ways to be social. Not everybody has to be a life-of-the-party extrovert,” says Kennedy-Moore. There is room in the world for all levels of sociability. The key questions are, does your child feel known for who they are? Does he or she feel supported?
In her clinical work with children, Kennedy-Moore says that she will often ask them whether they have someone that they sit with at lunch, and whether they have someone they like that likes them back. Can they be comfortable around other people when they want to be? Plenty of children are more reserved, and that’s okay. But if a child’s social life is on the quieter side, we want that type of social life to be a choice—not just their accepting limits that they feel have been placed on them by shyness or anxiety.
No child, no matter how lucky or skilled they are in the social arena, will be completely untroubled when it comes to building friendships. “Everybody has friendship challenges at some point, in some way, so these are not signs that your child is a misfit or that something is wrong with them,” says Kennedy-Moore. Instead, they are common problems that you can help your child learn to overcome. One overarching theme that helps children through many friendship struggles is teaching them to take another person’s perspective. To really imagine what another person is thinking and feeling will help your child reach out in kind, empathetic ways, and it greatly increases their ability to resolve conflicts. Here are five common areas of difficulties explored within “Growing Friendships,” and some solid interventions to help your child overcome them.
1) Problems with Reaching Out
Initiating a friendship, though obviously the very first stage of a relationship, can be fraught with challenges. One example is when a child who is particularly shy sabotages themselves, says Kennedy-Moore. They will often look down or away, or mutter something too softly for a potential friend to hear. Unfortunately, what this communicates to the potential friend is “I don’t like you and I don’t want anything to do with you.” Thankfully, reports Kennedy-Moore, this is something relatively easy to work on. You can start by having your child observe other people greeting each other, or have them count how many greetings they hear as the school day begins. This will open their eyes to how common these interactions are, and how avoiding them might actually make you stand out more than just participating in them. “Shy kids don’t want to draw attention to themselves, so they need to realize that they are the ones who are doing the atypical behavior by not saying ‘Hi,’” says Kennedy-Moore. Additional practice can be helpful, such as having a child rehearse looking in the eye, or on the forehead if eye contact is too intimidating. Smiling, saying ‘Hi,’ and saying the potential friend’s name are all worth rehearsal. Those initial few seconds are very quick, but your child will want to get those important seconds right. After that, set goals, says Kennedy-Moore. Have your child start with someone who is easy to greet, or a certain number of people to greet. It’s okay if it feels awkward at first—the key is that with repetition and practice, it will get much easier over time.
2) Problems with Stepping Back
Another common area where a child stumbles is learning to stop persisting with the same behavior when they've make a mistake. A child must understand that all of us make social blunders, and that’s fine—as long as we pause and do not keep doing the very same thing. For instance, if a kid says something that is not funny, and no one laughs, they will often say it eight more times hoping that it will become funny, says Kennedy-Moore. And of course, it never will! So, help your child pick up “stop” signals, and respect them. These are often very overt, like another kid saying “Cut it out,” or “You’re being annoying.” For some kids who have trouble stopping the runaway train of irritating behavior, it may be helpful to actually verbalize, “Okay, I’ll stop now.” Kennedy-Moore explains that this gives them the extra three seconds breaking distance to get themselves to stop. Perhaps they can sit on their hands or pretend that their tongue is stuck to the top of their mouth, or move a little farther away from the person they were with.
Try to teach your kid to aim for kindness, rather than humor, says Kennedy-Moore. As much as we enjoy people who make us laugh, humor can be a very risky social strategy, and it can go wrong if we’re just a little bit off. “But it’s pretty hard to mess up kindness.”
3) Problems With Blending In
This area of relating involves joining a group and becoming part of a team, which comes with the benefit of camaraderie. But there are two very common ways that kids go wrong in this area, says Kennedy-Moore. One is that they hold back and never put themselves out there in the position to actually join a group. And the second is that they barge in and disrupt everything, like what happens when there is an existing group of kids playing soccer, and a new child comes in and steals the ball, getting everyone to chase him or her, frustrated. Or a kid comes in and immediately tries to change the rules of the game being played. Interestingly enough, research on the playground tells us very clearly that certain strategies are more successful than others, says Kennedy-Moore. Specifically, if a child first observes, then slides in without interrupting, they will be much more likely to join the group successfully.
Ironically, this often goes completely against what we teach our kids to do (“Why don’t you go up to them and ask if them if you can play?”) This latter strategy, unfortunately, often opens up too much of an opportunity for a more mischievous kid to say “No!” And it also stops the action of the game in a way that can be very frustrating to the other kids, making the child less likely to be able to join the group. Successful blending occurs when a child can join in without drawing attention to themselves, respecting the play enough to not interrupt it. Techniques that help this along include starting to do the same type of play and gradually moving closer, or joining the team that is losing and needs help, or doing something to contribute to the action—like bringing extra sticks when people are building something. Joining with a compliment (“That’s a cool fort! I like it!”) will also increase the child’s chances of joining in. Of course, getting rejected from a group is quite common, and it may happen a full one-fourth of the time, even when well-liked children attempt to join. Being able to shrug it off and walk away and maintain being cheerful are important skills to learn.
4) Problems with Speaking Up
Common challenges in this area involve your child being able to speak up for what they want in a way that is respectful of themselves and others, says Kennedy-Moore. Often, a child will go to either extreme—not being assertive enough and bringing on resentment that will fester over time, or being overtly hostile in the way they speak up, causing further conflict.
Teaching our kids to stand up for themselves in a healthy way can take a hint from couples counseling. “I” statements that emphasize your child’s experience rather than blaming the other child (“I don’t like being called that. Can we please use my real name?”) can be helpful as long as the other child is not doing something out of deliberate meanness. And indeed, usually they aren’t. They might not be aware that it is bothersome. Of course, sometimes someone is indeed being cruel repeatedly, and your child shouldn’t necessarily entrust them with their feelings. “Your child should be thoughtful about who they share their feelings with,” says Kennedy-Moore. “I usually recommend they only share their feelings in those cases with people who care about them.” They always need to be flexible in response to the situation.
5) Problems With Letting Go
Being able to let go involves opening our hearts to forgiveness, and understanding that our friends make mistakes too, advises Kennedy-Moore. A common example of this is a child refusing to play with another child because last year when they played on the same soccer team, he or she never passed the ball. In cases like this, your child will be much better off learning to let go and start fresh. Kennedy-Moore has some general guidelines that she uses to help children put past transgressions in perspective, like if it happened more than a month ago, if the other child didn’t do it deliberately, has sincerely apologized, and if it likely won’t ever happen again, then a child should be able to let it go. When a child holds on to bitterness, it can really harm them, and it’s not a functional way to go through life to keep remembering every bad thing that has happened to you. Accepting that nobody is perfect is crucial.
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Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, professor, and author of The Friendship Fix and Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World, and the voice behind the longtime mental health advice column Baggage Check.