Back-to-school time can be exciting for kids. It can also open up worries about making and keeping friends. The social aspects of school are often just as important as the academic aspects.
Children and teens enjoy the company of their peers and have more fun when they have companionship and support from people of the same age. Childhood friendships are also an important part of a child's emotional development.
Every adult who cares for children wants that child to have friends. In addition, adults want to see kids learn how to be a good friend. Parents can assist in this learning process and help children develop the skills to make lasting, beneficial friendships.
Why Friendships Matter
Friendships are how children learn to navigate social and emotional interactions with other people. In early childhood, playtime with other children is a place where kids learn about cooperation, empathy, and positive interactions. As kids become teens, their friends act as a support network, encouraging one another in sports, school, and times of stress. These friendships can build self-esteem and improve academic success. Some research shows that strong friendships in the teen years can set the stage for better mental health into adulthood.
Parents and other caregivers can help children cultivate a friendship in obvious ways, like setting up playdates and giving kids rides to see their friends. In addition, adults can help children and teens understand what makes a healthy, positive friendship and how to avoid social relationships that may be harmful in the long run.
Model Healthy Friendships
Showing children behavior that they should emulate is one of the most tried-and-true tactics in parenting. Children observe adult behavior even before they can speak. They imitate what they see, whether that's pretending to drive the car or saying "please" and “thank you."
Adults can use this method to model healthy friendships by engaging in behaviors such as:
- Demonstrating empathy, kindness, and respect in their own relationships
- Engaging in active listening and asking thoughtful questions when interacting with adult friends
- Saying kind things to and about one another
- Offering to help others
- Avoiding speaking unkindly about friends who aren't present
- Demonstrating the value of diverse friendships by taking opportunities to interact with a variety of people
Teach Effective Communication and Conflict Resolution Skills
Friend drama is an inevitable part of life. Kids are engaged in a learning process as they make friendships, and there will be trial and error as they learn. Hurt feelings and disagreements will come up between any group of friends. Teaching them emotional awareness and the ability to communicate emotions can help kids learn to manage conflicts.
Parents and caregivers can help kids handle episodes of conflict by giving them strong communication tools. This is accomplished by:
- Teaching children the words to express their feelings so they can explain their actions and reactions effectively
- Giving children opportunities to talk through what happened and how they feel about it without criticizing or judging them
- Helping children understand why they feel the way they do and what would make them feel better
Teach Empathy and Emotional Intelligence
Empathy and emotional intelligence can bolster a child's communication skills. Both of these qualities involve being aware of and sensitive to other people's feelings. Understanding how others feel is the first step in teaching kids to respond in positive and appropriate ways.
Jamil Zaki, a Stanford University neuroscientist, told the Washington Post that empathy has three dimensions. "One is emotional, vicariously sharing what other people around us view," Zaki explained. "The other is cognitive, which is trying to understand what other people feel and why. And the third is compassion or empathic concern."
Adults can help kids learn about all the dimensions of empathy and emotions with actions such as:
- Talking about feelings and connecting them to actions or situations
- Naming emotions and discussing what kids want when they feel a particular way
- Helping kids identify clues about emotions in other people
- Talking to children about how they can respond to others in empathetic and sympathetic ways
Empathy and emotional intelligence are also tools that help kids identify incidents when others are not responding appropriately. Children who understand how empathetic relationships should feel will be better able to avoid or leave relationships with people who lack empathy.
Identify Healthy vs. Unhealthy Friendships
Adults should keep an eye on their kids' friendships to make sure the relationship is healthy for the child. Unhealthy or toxic friendships can be detrimental to children, leading to possible emotional distress or engaging in harmful behaviors. As kids get older, harmful relationships may become abusive or coercive. If a child seems to be in an unhealthy friendship, talk to them about the situation.
Observe kids to ensure they and their friends behave in ways consistent with healthy relationships, such as:
- Treating each other as equals
- Being honest and trustworthy
- Respecting personal boundaries
- Celebrating each other's successes
- Standing up for one another
- Refrain from using peer pressure
In addition, look for signs of negative relationships, such as:
- Power imbalances between friends
- Unkind words or behaviors
- Excessive interpersonal drama
- Excessive jealousy or possessiveness
- Excessive competition
- Controlling behaviors, using social exclusion or bullying
- Encouragement of rule-breaking
Balance Online and Offline Friendships
Many kids, especially teens, interact with friends online. Kids use online gaming, social media, texting, and group communication tools like Discord to talk to friends they know in real life. Research shows that these interactions can deepen real-world friendships and allow kids to continue friendships with people who live far away.
However, online activity should not replace face-to-face interactions. A study from 2014 showed that screen time can affect how well kids interpret body language and facial expressions. Moreover, excessive online time causes a more sedentary lifestyle, which has negative health effects.
Another risk with online interactions is stranger danger. Kids may meet new people on virtual platforms and form friendships with them. Adults need to equip kids with knowledge of online safety to protect them from online predators. Parents should monitor their children's online interactions and employ parental controls on apps to protect kids from people who would harm them.
Encourage Shared Interests and Hobbies
Activities and hobbies are some of the best ways for kids and teens to meet new friends. Sports, art classes, Scout troops, religious youth groups, and after-school clubs are great ways for kids to meet other kids with their interests. This can be especially beneficial for kids who struggle in social situations or don't connect easily with peers. Finding others who already share at least one interest gives them a starting point for forming a friendship.
Parents should take the opportunity to encourage children to have strong friendships from preschool and beyond. Being a good friend and maintaining strong, healthy friendships are skills that will benefit kids for the rest of their lives.