Developing Healthy Friendships
"Every time I see him on the playground, he's playing by himself. He seems happy, but I'm worried that he doesn't have any friends. When I ask him why he doesn't play with the other children, he says he would rather play by himself." –Tyden's father
"My daughter is very rude and bossy to her friends. Several mothers have called to tell me that my daughter was verbally abusive to their child. Her preschool teacher has also told me that her bossiness is a problem in the classroom. I have talked to her many times about her rude behavior, but it doesn't seem to make a difference. I am afraid that if this continues, she won't have any friends." –Janet's mother
"We recently moved to a new neighborhood and my daughter is having trouble fitting in. In fact, the children tease her constantly. Lately, she won't even go outside in her own yard when the neighborhood children are out playing. It breaks my heart because she had so many great friends in our previous neighborhood." –Lisa's mother
Any parent who has experienced the joy of a true friend wants their child to have similar experiences of their own. Likewise, parents who have experienced the loneliness and isolation associated with the lack of friendship also want to protect their child from such feelings.
The Value of "Good" Friends
Healthy friendships help children grow emotionally and socially. According to Kevin Rowe, family therapist, "The value of a friend is universal throughout life. It is the relationships with others that make us rich. Through true friendships, we take off our masks and learn to be open and honest with our feelings." Some of the most important lessons in life are learned through the process of making friends, growing closer as friends, and even losing friends.
Feeling accepted and included is a natural human need. However, the degree of this need varies with each individual's personality. Children who are more extroverted tend to have a greater need for other's attention, approval, and acceptance, and will seek it from many. Others who are more introverted tend to be content with gaining approval and acceptance from an occasional close friend. It is likely that your child's friendships reflect his or her individual personality.
Regardless of personality, a close friend can be a lifeline of support to your child through the ups and downs of life. A trusted friend can "be there" for your child when you can't be. T. Berry Brazelton once said, "A child without a friend is a poor child indeed."
Ways to Encourage Friendship
It is important that children have healthy friendships when they are young because this sets the groundwork for building positive relationships later in life. But how do parents guide their child toward healthy friendships while allowing them the freedom to learn important lessons from both the "good" friends as well as the "bad" ones? Here are a few tips:
- Teach your child the qualities of being a good friend. The most effective way to teach a child how to be a good friend is to be a positive role model. When your child watches you make sacrifices for your friends, spend quality time with them, and remain loyal through difficult times, they will learn that these are the expected qualities of a friend. However, if children hear their parents criticizing their own friends, canceling plans with them, and distancing themselves when their friends experience "messy" situations, such as a job loss, divorce, etc, they will demonstrate similar behavior with their friends.
- Listen and talk to your children about their friends. Let your children know that you are sincerely interested in their friendships. By establishing a pattern of open communication when your child is young, they will be more apt to come to you when they want to share something great that they have experienced with a friend, or when they have a problem with a friend.
- Listen carefully and keep an open mind. You will learn more about your child as they relate to others, and your child will learn a great deal about himself. This discovery can be enlightening, encouraging, humorous, frustrating, and sometimes painful for both you and your child. The important thing is that you allow your child the freedom to talk openly about his friends without a judgmental or critical response.
- Ask your child questions. Examples include "What do you enjoy about being with your new friend?" or "How did you feel when she said that to you?" Encourage your child to think independently, while showing him or her that you are sincerely interested.
- Be available when intervention is needed. Sometimes it is necessary to intervene. But knowing when and how can be difficult. When someone has hurt your child, either emotionally or physically, it is natural to want to step in and retaliate. However, this approach is not usually the best long-term solution. Character is developed as children learn to confront these battles on their own. You can encourage your child to handle their interpersonal conflicts on their own, while still letting them know you are there to support them. Begin by talking to your child about how they want to handle the problem. Discuss choices and possible consequences. Finally, assure them that you are on their side, and you are willing to intervene if they need you.
Shy, Bossy, or New-Kid-on-the-Block Problems
To Tyden's father: Relax. If he appears to be content and happy, he probably is. His lack of interaction with others on the playground may just be a reflection of his more introverted personality. Be careful that you don't pass your concerns on to him about not playing with other children. You may ask him if he would like to have a friend over to play at his house. This could help foster the development of a friendship, without the pressure of lots of other children.
To Janet's mother: "Bossiness" is often a reflection of confidence and leadership. However, it obviously causes problems in interpersonal relationships. Listen to her conversations with others, and then later repeat back to her what she said, including voice tone, facial expression, etc. But direct the command toward her. Then ask her what she thinks about being spoken to in that way. An "on the spot" approach would be to ask her to repeat what she said in a kind way. If the problem continues, explain to her ahead of time that her play-time with friends will end immediately if she is disrespectful or treats them rudely. Then, be sure to follow through. If she has an extrovert personality, this will be a consequence that will be effective in modifying her behavior.
To Lisa's mother: Being the "new kid" in an existing neighborhood is tough. Encourage her to talk about how she feels and let her know you understand. Allow her to keep in touch with old friends via letters, phone calls, or e-mail. This will help her feel connected to friends until she makes new ones. Look for activities in the community or at school that are just beginning that interest her. Children seem to be more accepting of others when they are all "new." Finally, assure her that it will take time and a consistent effort on her part to make new friends.
Parents have the greatest influence on a child's development during the early years, but peers have a significant influence later in life. Don't underestimate the value of guiding your child toward good, loyal friends.
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
National Institutes of Mental Health
Canadian Mental Health Association
Mental Health Canada
Last reviewed March 2008 by Theodor B. Rais, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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