Expert insight into the power of childhood friendships, for better or worse, and how to nurture friend-making skills.
Some of us can still fondly remember long summer days and recess hours spent with our closest pals, making mud pies, catching ladybugs and generally having lots of fun. As it turns out, the effects of those adolescent friendships last well into adulthood.
“Being chosen [as a friend] makes a child or teen feel affirmed, and it also expands their horizon beyond the narrow world of their nuclear family,” says Dr. Jan Yager, Ph.D., author of When Friendship Hurts. “The child or teen can become friends with someone of a different race, religion, culture or socio-economic background since their siblings will most likely be very similar to them. Friendships outside of siblings expand a child or teen’s horizons and view of the world and other families besides their own.”
Conversely, not learning to develop solid friendships can negatively affect a child’s future, as Yager notes that kids who spend too much time alone can become lonely teens and adults and even begin to develop signs of depression. Truly, we live in an interconnected world, and whether it relates to effectively completing group assignments in high school or college, or securing a job post-graduation and being able to work collaboratively with colleagues, it’s important that we encourage our children to develop strong, meaningful friendships. Here’s how:
Teach kids how to be good friends.
Anyone who’s had a relationship with an overly needy or inconsiderate person knows that being a great friend to others has become a bit of a lost art. Teach your kids now how to treat others well, and you won’t ever have to worry about them being alone later. “Kids can learn to model great friendships when they are given the tools for experiencing empathy,” says parenting expert Natalie Blais. “The power of empathy has a deep and lasting impression on kids because they are not yet clouded with disappointment like adults are. Kids are constantly filled with wonder when it comes to emotion, and empathy is an experience kids must learn to master.”
Dr. Marian Fritzemeier, Ed.D, an education and child development expert agrees, adding that it is up to parents to model the kind of behavior that they expect their kids to develop. “Role modeling is significant,” she says. “How parents interact with their children and their children’s friends helps them learn positive friendship skills. For example, if friends come over, the parent may suggest, ‘Emily, maybe your friends would like a snack. I can help you.’ Over time, sharing a snack becomes automatic.”
Encourage kids to seek out children who need friends.
Though cell phones have replaced land lines, and kids may actually spend more time communicating with each other via social media than face-to-face, little else has changed in the world of childhood friendships. On any playground across the country, you’re likely to find a group or clique, of popular, outgoing kids along with a smattering of quiet, more introverted kids who hang solo.
“My son is going into third grade in September, and we spent the entire year of second grade learning how to find kids who need someone to be a friend to them,” says Blais. “At the end of each day, I ask my son if he had the opportunity to be kind to someone that day. I make sure I have him consistently thinking about and looking for the chance to be kind to someone and reach out to him. Often, parents ask their kids how the day was, but they rarely ask their kids how they genuinely plugged into the situation around them and searched out the kids who needed them most.”
If your child is introverted, it’s important that you step in and help her begin to interact with others. The key, though, is not to push her too far outside of her comfort zone. “Years ago it was believed that children develop a temperament by age 3, but most research shows that children are born with an individual temperament,” Fritzemeier explains. “Some will be naturally outgoing and noisy, while others may be quiet and reserved. Parents who push their children to become someone they are not only increases the children’s stress levels, but as children get older, she can begin to question if her parents want them to be more like them or a sibling.”
Yager suggests parents arrange playdates for their kids (even through the elementary years) and enroll preschool-aged children in classes like Mommy and Me or Gymboree to help foster new friendships. Additionally, adds Fritzemeier, bringing a toy or pet can serve as an icebreaker and help draw other kids to your child. Also, when choosing other children to arrange playdates with, it’s important to try to find kids whose temperaments match that of your child, so she is not overwhelmed by an outgoing or boisterous personality.
Intervene when necessary.
Eventually, as your child ages and becomes more adept at interacting with others, she is bound to get involved in an unhealthy friendship. Parents, then, must toe the line between allowing their kids to be proactive in choosing their own relationships while also protecting them from significant hurt or danger. “Being a parent means taking the time to get to know the kids your child is spending time with,” says Dr. Tina Tessina, Ph.D., LMFT. You need to know their parents and hang out with them. Driving [your children’s friends] places and listening to what they talk about in the car while you’re driving is a great way to get a sense of who they are. This is most easily done while your kids are small; once they’re teens, you have a lot less control.”
If you do discover that your child is hanging out with someone she shouldn’t, Tessina suggests deftly steering her toward more positive influences without damaging your relationship with your child. “It’s best not to say bad things about the friends you don’t like; it will set you and your children against each other,” she explains. “This is why it’s so important to pay attention early on: you want to intervene before your child is too attached to someone. The best tactic is to find something your child is interested in and allow her to get involved, and distract your child from the undesirable friends. It also helps to find out what your child is getting out of the friendship. Is there some kind of acceptance for something you child feels bad about? Perhaps there’s something you don’t understand.”
Ultimately, though, if you’ve taken the time to show your child how to be a good friend and helped her to develop solid friendships while she’s young, you shouldn’t have much to worry about.
Adds Tessina, “If you set up a good parameter, you can let your child make choices, because there won’t be any bad ones.”
Published in: dailyparent.com/articles/the-power-of-childhood-friendships