Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your child’s success. Helping your child to grow healthy friendships is essential. Through relationships, your child develops a sense of belonging. They come to better understand themselves through their interactions with you, their teachers, and their peers.
Children ages 5-10 are in the process of learning about themselves, their strengths, and their limitations. They are learning about why they feel the way they do and how they relate to others. This is also known as their self-awareness.1 Whether your child is five or ten, friendships will become critical to their motivation to attend and work hard in school. Friendships will add to their sense of enjoyment and ability to play socially. And friendships will even affect their physical health, mental health, and wellbeing.
Yet, there are challenges. “She’s always staring at me. I must look weird. Or maybe she just hates me?” you may hear from your nine-year-old. You may feel like these comments are suddenly coming out of nowhere. In fact, this is a normal, healthy next step in your child’s development.
Learning how to connect with and care about others is core to your child’s development. Learning how to support their growing friendships can help you feel more competent in your role as a parent. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starts to prepare you to help your child through the ups and downs of growing healthy friendships.
Whether it’s your five-year-old melting down that his friend won’t listen to his ideas, your seven-year-old telling on a classmate at school each time he gets poked with a pencil, or your ten-year-old staying up late worrying about why classmates are staring at him, our children’s current friendships or lack of and need for friendships can become our daily challenge if we don’t create plans and strategies for dealing with them along with input from our children.
Today, in the short term, friendships can create:
- greater opportunities for connection and enjoyment, and
- trust in each other that we have the competence to manage our relationships.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child:
- builds skills in self-awareness;
- builds skills in social awareness, perspective taking, empathy, and compassion;
- builds skills in self-control and managing emotions; and
- develops independence, life skills competence, and self-sufficiency.
This five-step process helps you and your child through the ups and downs of growing healthy friendships. It also builds important skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about friendships by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to friendships so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child:
- has the opportunity to become more aware of how they’re thinking and feeling and understand when the cause of their upset is friendship related;
- can begin to formulate what it means to be a good friend;
- can think through and problem solve any challenges they may encounter ahead of time; and
- will have more motivation and courage to try and make new friends.
- Engage your child in a conversation about friendship. You could ask:
- “How can you start new friendships?”
- “What does a good friend look like?”
- “What do you think it means to be a good friend?”
- “What would you like others to do to reach out to you?” (Do they want to be included in games or fun activities?) Then ask your child, “How can you adopt those qualities and actions? How can you be the one to include others?”
Grab a large newsprint sheet of paper or poster board. Ask your child, “What’s your favorite hero, book character, or movie character?” Have them draw the hero on the poster board. Now list the many aspects that hero might possess in being a good friend – “Are they kind? Do they help others? Do they accept others for who they are?”
For nine-year-olds and ten-year olds, friendships may be a sensitive topic. Remove the spotlight from your child by discussing the meaning of friendship as a whole family at a family dinner. Include all family members’ perspectives. Talk about what you value in a friend. Discuss how you try and act as a good friend. Talk about how you go about making new friends.
- Practice actively listening to your child’s thoughts, feelings, and worries about friendships. Paraphrasing what you heard your child say can ensure you are fully understanding what your child is communicating. Paraphrasing is echoing back to the person a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. It may seem awkward at first. But this is an important way for you to check your own understanding while simultaneously, teaching children how to listen for comprehension. A conversation might go something like this:
- Child: “I asked Micah today if he’d sit with me at lunch, and he just walked away and sat with another group.” Parent modeling paraphrasing: “So I hear you asked Micah to sit with you at lunch, but he decided to sit with others.” If you hear a subtext of feeling, as in this example, you can also reflect back the feeling implied. Parent reflecting feeling: “I get the sense you were surprised, hurt, and disappointed that he didn’t sit with you. Is that right?”
Sometimes feeling the need for friends especially when you feel like you don’t have many can make a child feel alone, vulnerable, and different. Reassure your child that it’s normal for any person to want to grow friendships. We all go through challenging times trying to find new friends.
Our worries are not always our children’s worries. Listen closely to what is most concerning to your child without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
Be sure you talk about stressful friendship challenges at a calm time when you are not stressed!
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Social connections are vital to your child’s learning and development. Learning about developmental milestones can help a parent better understand the role of friendships in their child’s life and the challenges they may face. Strategies can also be formed around developmental themes.2 Here are some examples:
- Five-year-olds have grand and vivid imaginations and can construct elaborate play themes. Because they are working hard to understand rules, those rules can facilitate play with peers. Some will “tattle” on peers when they do not get their way or see another break a rule. Rest assured, this is how five-year-olds internalize understanding the rules themselves – by attempting to enforce them with others. Five year olds may struggle with turn-taking and get into conflicts over toys. With limited attention spans, conflicts also tend not to last long.
- Six-year-olds can be ambitious and thrive on encouragement. They can be highly competitive with peers which can lead them into dishonesty, bossyness, and becoming critical of others. Similar to five-year-olds, they are attempting to internalize their own social rules and the criticism of others helps them define their own boundaries. However, kindness, connection, and inclusion are all important to emphasis at this age.
- Seven-year-olds need consistency and may worry more when schedules are chaotic and routines change. They can become extremely loyal to one friend or claim a “best friend.” Because friends will change (and perhaps rapidly) building friendship skills and particularly staying kind to others amidst changes will help your child.
- Eight-year-olds’ interest and investment in friendships and peer approval elevates and becomes as important as the teacher’s approval. They are more skilled at cooperation and may form larger friendship groups. They are more resilient when they make mistakes. They have a greater social awareness of local and world issues so they may be concerned about the news or events outside of your community. Eight-year-olds are highly social and full of creative ideas.
- Nine-year-olds can be highly competitive and critical of themselves and others. They may worry about who is in the “in” and “out” crowd and where they fit in friendship groups. They may tend toward excluding others in order feel included in a group, so it’s a good time to encourage inclusion and kindness toward a diverse range of others. As they become more aware of their peers’ evaluation of them, they may become more concerned with their appearance and interests and change those or hide them to gain their peers’ approval.
- Ten-year-olds have an increased social awareness so that they can try to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. There is much more of a give-and-take in friendships with listening, talking, and compromising. With their rising social awareness also comes a newfound worry about what peers are thinking of them (for example, “He’s staring at me. I think he doesn’t like me.”). Ten-year-olds tend to be able to work through conflicts and resolve fairness issues with friends more rapidly.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Model introductions for your child. Find chances in the grocery store or at the bank during regular weekly activities in which your child accompanies you to model introductions to people. You may go to the same store each week but do you know the names of the employees that assist you? Introduce yourself and your child.
- You could say, “Hi. I come in here weekly and you’ve helped me many times. What is your name? It’s nice to meet you. This is my daughter, Amanda. She is a big help on shopping trips.”
- You may take the opportunity on the car ride home to reflect on the introduction. You might ask, “What did you notice that I said to the woman at the store? Are there some classmates at school you might be able to introduce yourself to in a similar way?”3
- There’s always a first drop off at a new activity, a new grade level, a new camp where parents are standing around saying goodbye to their children. This is an ideal opportunity to begin making introductions. Introduce yourself and your child to other parents and other kids. It can be as simple as shaking a hand and exchanging names. If this healthy risk makes you nervous, consider that it can be an important teaching tool to model for your child how to overcome their fears and reach out to connect with others.
Remember, children who have friendships and valued connections are more likely to want to go to school and will be more cooperative in daily routines.
- Learn together! When you start a friendship, going up to a stranger can be nerve-wracking. Your child may prefer to stay in their comfort zone. Brainstorm ideas together for ways to start up a connection. Generating ideas can add to your child’s comfort level and may even boost their motivation to take that healthy risk. Here are a few ideas to add to your brainstorm list:
- Find a common interest (sports, music, art, animals)
- Find a difference and learn as in, “I notice you play the piano. I’ve never played. What do you like about it? I’d love to learn more.”
- Offer a specific compliment. “Those are great shoes. Where did you find them?” No one can resist responding to a compliment. This can be a winning introduction!
- Ask an opinion of something you are doing together, such as, “What did you think of science today? What did you think of gym class?”
- Ask, “Can I sit here?” or invite another to sit and eat. The lunch room can be a highly stressful environment for kids who haven’t found a lunch “home.”
- Do magic. Yes, learn a basic magic trick and show others. Everyone loves a little magic!
- Learn listening strategies together by trying them out. Listening for understanding and connection is a skill set that can be built over time with practice and support.
- Active listening. Try out active listening in which one person listens to fully understand what the speaker is saying and waits until the speaker is finished talking before responding. A response could be a simple “I get it.” Make eye contact and practice placing your full focus on the speaker.
- Paraphrasing. Try out paraphrasing by echoing back to the speaker a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. You might start, “I heard you say that…”
- Seeking clarification. Try out seeking clarification. Particularly if you are listening with the intent to learn something from the speaker, seeking clarification on details is important to make certain you understand. Practice seeking clarification by asking questions like, “What did you mean when you said you weren’t happy this morning? What happened?”
- Practice questioning and commenting with empathy. Instead of responding to a speaker with your own experiences, focus solely on the content of what has been communicated. For example, your child might say, “Today Mrs. Smith started a new project. We are going to be building fairy tree houses. I can’t wait.” Instead of responding with something like: “I built a birdhouse when I was in school,” which takes the focus away from your child, you might say, “Sounds like you are excited about this project. What else besides sticks do we need to collect?” This empathetic pattern of speaking and listening requires practice. Your modeling will make a difference in your child’s comfort with this style of communication.4
Pick one style of listening, announce your plan to try out active listening at dinner, and engage in it with your family during a weeknight meal together.
- Though it may be difficult to recall your own learning experiences in how to talk with others, children need to learn how to share and to converse. They need to learn what’s appropriate, what’s not, what’s too much, and what’s too little. This is why dialogue at family meals, on road trips, and after school are critical.
- Consider what your conversations typically look like when it comes to your child. Do your conversations typically relate to the logistics of life – like when we have to go to karate, who we are having over for dinner, or how long we can use screens? If so, you might want to think about adding some additional topics to teach your child important conversation tools. For example, you could talk about interests, passions, or social connections. You could explore your child’s curiosities like how things work and what things mean.
- Whether your child is passionate about tigers or interested in bowling, get curious, ask questions, and discuss these interests. These simple conversations show your child how to share appropriately.
- Keep your questions or comments brief and engaging. When you are intentionally initiating a family conversation to teach your child how to appropriately share, ensure that it’s developmentally appropriate and something your child can replicate easily. For example, if you choose your child’s favorite topic, then challenge yourself to share only one or two sentences and ask a question. For example, “I love how you’ve organized your crafting supplies. Do you have a next project in mind?”
Make and use a talking stick. From Native American traditions, a talking stick is a beautifully decorated stick (yes, from your yard!) that is covered with paint and ribbons. Work on decorating it with your child. It is passed around in a group. When the speaker holds the stick, all focus goes to the speaker while others listen. When another wants to speak, the talking stick is passed to give them the “floor.” This is a powerful way to teach the discipline of waiting your turn, listening, and then, speaking appropriately during your turn.
- When your child is in the uncomfortable position of disagreeing or arguing with another, it can be difficult to know how to respond in ways that won’t harm themself or others. That’s why teaching and practicing “I-messages” can help. This statement works effectively from partner to partner, from parent to child, and from child to child. Here’s an example: “I feel _______________________(insert feeling word) when you _________________ (name the words or actions that upset you) because ____________________________________.” This helps the individual take responsibility for their own role and feelings in the problem while constructively communicating what they are experiencing. Here’s how it might sound if a parent is using it with a child: “I feel frustrated and angry when you keep playing and don’t seem like you are listening because I feel like you are ignoring me, and I believe what I have to say is important for both of us.”
Gather a few stuffed friends or action figures around to teach this skill. Perhaps Luke Skywalker Lego Mini-Figure battles Darth Vader Lego Mini-Figure each day in your living room? Use that play interaction to teach an I-message. For example, Luke (you) might say “I feel upset when you slash at me with your lightsaber, because I don’t want to get hurt.”
- Follow up when your child makes mistakes to help them repair harm. Mistakes are a critical aspect of social learning. Plus, we all have our moments when we hurt another. But it’s that next step that they take that matters in repairing the friendship. You child will need support and practice to repair their relationships.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of pretend play, cooperatively working together, or trying out a new skill with you as a coach and ready support. Practice is necessary in order for children to internalize new skills. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your child works hard to perform the new action.
- Use “Show me…” When a child learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say: “Show me how you can listen at dinner without interrupting.” Set a goal for yourself to reintroduce one of the conversations or listening strategies you’ve taught to practice as a family at dinner.
- Recognize effort. Frequently, we offer feedback on what children are not doing right, but how often do we recognize when they are working on their behaviors? Recognize effort by saying “I notice…” like: “I noticed how you used an I-message with your sister when you got frustrated. That’s excellent!”
- Schedule playdates. Playdates can become invaluable practice for your child. Playdates build connections and help your child to practice the skills you’ve taught them.
When it comes to figuring out who to invite over and when, follow your child’s lead. Who does your child talk about at home? That’s a perfect place to begin.
- Discuss a few simple rules with your child in advance of a playdate. Instead of feeling like you have to highly supervise every moment of play, go over a few basic rules to set up your child and their friend for success. You might want to begin with saying, “Each family has different rules. Let’s figure out a few for our house that make the most sense. How about we play safe?” Then, talk about what playing safe means to you for example, “We don’t climb on the furniture” or “We stay on the first floor.” When the friend arrives, welcome them in, share your excitement for a great time, and then partner with your child to communicate those few rules you’ve discussed. You might say to your child, “Do you remember what we talked about to keep you both safe?”
Our children have plenty of time for screen time. Playdates should not be one of them if you want to maximize your child’s social learning. Adopt the motto: “Friends before screens.” Perhaps get out some novelty toys that haven’t been opened yet or some creative playthings to attract their attention and interest, put away the screens, and allow them time to work out what they’ll do.
- Proactively remind. A playdate might offer the perfect opportunity to remind your child just before their friend arrives one skill or tool they might try out. You may whisper in your child’s ear, “Remember how to do an I-message?”
The best way to turnaround a misbehavior that may be taking place is by recognizing when and how your child makes good choices and acts positively in similar circumstances. Children need to learn what to do as well as what not to do.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child some new strategies for making friends and growing friendships so that they understand how to take action. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to learn about your child’s free time at school and whether they are interacting with others. You could ask: “Did you sit with someone at lunch today? Who? What did you play at recess?”
- Learn about development. Each new age and stage will present differing social challenges. So becoming informed regularly about what developmental milestones your child is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Reflect on outcomes to build confidence. “Remember we met Sam together on your first day of school and you are still hanging out with him? He’s become a good friend.”
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different friendship-building strategies can offer additional support and motivation for your child when tough issues arise.
- Engage in further practice. Create more opportunities to practice when all is calm and it’s playtime.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though it is easy to forget, your attention is your child’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished to get to work and school on time in the morning, for example. But if your child is working hard to create new friendships and act as a good friend, it will be worth your while to call it out. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your child’s sense of social competence. Add to your child’s motivation to work hard by the following actions.
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When children are using the communications tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed you introduce yourself to the other girl at the market. Yes! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, “Since you made a new friend this week, why don’t I call her Mom and invite her to go to the pool with us?” Encourage opportunities for fun and further connection.
Avoid stickers, gifts, or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on children. When you remove the candy, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward.
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You went and found a common interest with the new girl you met. Love seeing that!” – can promote more of the same.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.