For many kids and teens, making and keeping friends can be challenging. With cliques, social media and bullying, kids have a lot to contend with each day. Transitions like moving to a new neighborhood or starting at a new school can also cause distress. These changes bring about shifts in peer groups. Parents often ask, “How can I help my child build healthy, lasting friendships?”
Friendships during Childhood
We know that friendships are essential to healthy childhood development. Friendships provide children with opportunities to develop listening skills and practice conflict resolution. Children can find support and grow in their confidence through friendships. Parents can help guide young children as they learn the essential skills of sharing, cooperating and listening to others. When children reach the age of 6 and 7 years old, they begin to develop greater abilities to communicate and interact with peers. As as result, cliques first begin to appear during this time. Parents may feel concerned by some of the intense emotions and dramatic peer interactions their child reports. For the most part, these drama-filled interactions are emotionally intense, but fleeting.
Friendships during the Teenage Years
As children continue to grow older, peer interactions become more complex, offering opportunities for deeper friendships as well as conflicts. The teenage years bring great change. Insecurity around peers and confusion about oneself can cause teens to feel both lost in peer relationships and, at times, only understood by their friends.
At all stages, children and teens are working to make sense of themselves, and it is not an easy process. Thankfully, parents can offer support and guidance at every stage of development. Parents who provide gentle, well-informed guidance help build a healthy foundation for their child’s future relationships.
Normal Childhood Drama or Time to Intervene?
The most important first step is to understand when your child needs your support. Some signs your child or teen might be struggling include suddenly spending a lot of time alone, often seeming upset or actively avoiding friends and social interactions. It is during these times when parents feel like they are watching their child struggle, but are unsure of how to help. For parents of teens it can be especially challenging. The New York Times article, “Decoding Your Child’s Friendship Drama,” provides an excellent overview of normal childhood development.
Seven Ways To Help Your Child Build Healthy Friendships
Talk about your own experiences. Think back to when you were your child’s age and share with them some of your experiences with peers. Cliques have been around for a long time and your child may be experiencing something similar. It may also help your child feel less alone to know you felt the same way when you were a child or teen.
Look for stories about social challenges they can relate to. For children and teens there are now a large number of books, movies and TV shows that portray outsiders overcoming rejection by being true to themselves and finding support from others. Selecting stories that value being a good friend and showing kindness to others (and oneself!) are especially helpful.
Put rejection in perspective. Remind your child or teen that feelings change, and uncomfortable feelings do not last forever. It can be helpful to use an example when your child or teen was angry with a friend or sibling, but no longer feels that way.
Help your child see the big picture. For children and teens it can be hard to remember that cliques and friendships can change quickly. As they get older, it is healthy for children and teens to understand that some friendships end, while others start and continue to grow. Encourage your child or teen to be the kind of friend they would like to have: caring, supportive, kind, trustworthy, respectful and honest.
Break down social dynamics. Talk to your child or teen about how some people are mean and put others down because they lack self-confidence. Point out that this approach is an unhealthy and harmful way of coping that helps the person feel in control of the situation and others.
Support friendships outside of school. Extracurricular activities can be a great place to help kids and teens build lasting friendships while developing new skills and confidence. Things like sports, dance, language study, music and art classes are all great opportunities to create social groups outside of school.
Look out for signs of bullying. While schools and parents work hard to eliminate bullying, the reality is it is hard to always know when it is happening. Talk to your child or teen about bullying. Educating your child or teen about what physical and emotional abuse looks like is an important way to empower your loved one to speak up and report bullying when it happens.
Looking for guidance about how to best support your child or teen? Sage House Counseling & Art Therapy serves Northern Virginia. Our clinicians specialize in providing children, teens and parents with knowledge and support.
Contact us today for a free phone consultation with a member of our clinical team.
Kate is the Founder and Clinical Director of Sage House Counseling & Art Therapy. With nearly ten years of clinical experience, I partner with you to connect back to your authentic, true self. The self that desires happiness, abundance and greater self-compassion. I work with clients just like you because I believe we all have the innate ability to heal and grow when we are heard and supported.