Jesus often spoke of the importance of friendship, whether it was his dearest companion John or his good friend Lazarus. So it is no wonder that from childhood we regard our friends as cherished parts of our lives.
The dawn of the New Year is a good time for resolutions about friendship – making new friends and deepening existing ties – and ensuring that our children have good friends and know how to make new ones.
“When you are a kid all your social interactions are based on your family until you go to school,” notes Kristina Bielkevicius, learning support director and school psychologist at St. Junipero Serra School. “Then you have a choice of who your friends are. It’s important that you have the ability to choose your circle of friends in order to explore who you are.”
Friendship is a critical childhood passage and an important way that kids learn to share, compromise and work through misunderstandings, writes Joanne Barker in a WebMD feature. Still, the ups and downs of friendships often are hard for parents to watch. When do parents intervene and when do they need to back off? Barker offers some tips from childhood development experts.
- Teach friendship skills. Parents are role models. Seeing their own parents reach out to friends is your child’s first lesson in how to do that. Have your children help you bring food to a sick neighbor, or make a birthday card for a grandparent. Children’s experience at home models empathy.
“Friendship should and does help you grow as a person and help you know yourself by the people you’re choosing to associate with,” says Bielkevicius. “We learn a lot from our interactions with friends, what we do and don’t want. With friends, you gain some and lose some and learn from every relationship.”
- Tune in to your child’s friendship style. Involving your child and forcing your child are two different things. Let your child show you what kind of social interactions work best for him. “Some children don’t want interaction all the time. Everyone needs someone, but kids are good at communicating what they want and need,” Bielkevicius says. “The culture we live in emphasizes being extroverted, but there are a lot of people who find it exhausting to be around other people too much.”
- Open your home to your child’s friends. Even when your child is old enough to plan his own activities, encourage him to have friends over. Make your home a welcoming place.
- Help your child work through friendship troubles. Parents need not step in every time to work everything out. Instead, they can point out that there are two sides to every story, and urge patience.
- Let your child choose friends that fit. It’s a good idea to give your children room to make their own friends. “I was more of a floater and had a lot of different friends not totally associated with a single group. I didn’t get close to any one person,” recalls Bielkevicius. “Sometimes that would feel lonely, but long term that is a good quality to have – it makes you more adaptive in any social situation. A lot of kids feel weird when they don’t hang with one group, but it’s good to have variety in friendships.”
- Keep an eye out for teasing or bullying. Teasing is often a part of childhood play, but as kids go from preschool to middle school it can become more harmful. You can help your child understand how her words or actions might hurt another child’s feelings.
- Offer alternatives to popularity. Not being part of the popular crowd can feel like rejection on a grand scale. While you can’t change your child’s popularity status, you can listen to his concerns and share your own childhood misadventures. And a good group of friends can make problems like teasing and not being “in” less painful.
Lastly, know that children can learn skills of friendship, Bielkevicius advises. “Children must be able to communicate with others. Beyond that, even for kids who struggle socially, you can teach them reciprocation, caring and doing nice things for people.”
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in OC Catholic on January 22, 2017.