How To Navigate Your Child’s Friendships

Childhood friendships are full of ups and downs – and never more so than after such an unprecedented length of time away from school. Here, chartered educational and child psychologist Hannah Abrahams explains how parents can help their children navigate friendships old and new – from primary age, right through to the teenage years.

Age 3 – 5

At this age, children will tend to engage with peers who like participating in the same games as they do. They haven’t yet formed the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective, so they can get easily upset if another child approaches things differently from them. That said, they also really want to have friends.

Age 6 – 9

As kids grow and develop, we see ‘one-way assistance’ friendships start to develop. At this stage, children care about friendships and may use them to barter with: for example, “I will give you my favourite sticker if you give me a biscuit.” They are becoming increasingly socially aware, and recognise the need for friends, too.

Age 10 - 12

By this stage, children become very concerned with fairness, but this can be expressed in a forthright way and sometimes results in fractured friendships. Increasingly, children become openly and internally judgemental, of themselves and others. They can be inflexible and generalise too, for example, thinking “no-one will play with me if I wear these trainers.”

Age 12+

By secondary school children often develop more mutually fulfilling friendships. There will be a sense of camaraderie and they will do things for others with heartfelt honesty. Girls’ friendships can be very deep and emotional, and they can feel terribly betrayed if their best friend appears to favour someone else. But as children reach adolescence, they learn to accept other’s differences and if they feel secure in themselves, they are more comfortable separating from friendships and returning to them. They are less likely to feel threatened if their friends develop multiple relationships, too.

For many children, primary school is the first time they initiate and navigate new relationships outside of their families, and while this can be daunting, it is also a hugely exciting part of their development. Young children will often engage in parallel play, where they play alongside each other but do not appear to be interacting, and this is how friendships begin. They are aware of each other and will often model the activity they see around them. 

In order to support the development of your child’s friendships, it's important to model interactions and imaginative play with them yourself. Young children will engage in role play as a vital form of understanding the world around them, as well as practising their turn-taking skills and reciprocity. The more you are able to get down to their level of play, the greater the development of their language and social skills, and thus, their friendships.

Young children who have been surrounded by siblings and cousins from a young age are more likely to find forming friendships in school easier. In order to support greater socialisation, encourage children to have playdates with their classmates. Short and sweet tend to be the most successful when they are younger, and it can often be helpful to do this in familiar or shared territory – such as a local park or playground.

As parents, we undoubtedly project our own experiences onto our children, in which can affect how they approach their own friendships. It is important to empower kids to make a variety of friendships, with as much diversity as possible. Some will find it easier to develop just one or two relationships at school, but as soon as your children are old enough to understand, it’s worth encouraging them to have a broad friendship group. This helps them to understand every individual they meet offers something different, which will only enrich their lives.

If you decide to arrange a playdate at home, your child may feel uncertain about how to engage or what to play – so try to set them up for success. Perhaps discuss two or three activities your child loves and whether they think their friend might enjoy it too. Use modelling to demonstrate to the children how to play and co-operate with one another. Often children become immersed and increasingly confident in their own play and it can be helpful if you provide constructive and descriptive praise.

Children who are quiet in new surroundings can actually be very good at attuning themselves to the situation and figuring out their next move. And when they feel ready, they will join in. Try to allow shy children to stand back and watch if they want to. Often, they just need a little extra time; it doesn't mean they won’t be as successful at forming positive relationships in the future.

Developmentally, this is often one of the most complex lessons for children to learn, but it’s one we all return to throughout our lives.  Through storytelling and discussion, we can encourage children to be empathetic of their peers, as well as developing their own emotional language. Encourage your child to jump into the ‘story picture’… how would they advise the character to make a friend? What could they do to help make them feel happy? How can they tell if their friend is feeling happy or sad? By discussing all these emotions, we are helping children’s emotional brains grow and attune to others' needs, as well as their own.

We’ve all had times when we have had to demand an apology from our child for behaving badly, but ‘sorry’ can become meaningless if a child genuinely doesn’t understand what they have done wrong. It is often more helpful to highlight that “Alfie feels upset because he was enjoying playing with the toy before you took it and perhaps, he could play with it for a bit longer, then you have a go?” By saying this, you are working to help your child understand the concept of sharing in a nurturing and explicit way.

If a friendship takes a turn for the worse and becomes unhealthy for your child, try to support them in separating from the relationship, allowing them to grieve the loss but also showing them the importance of allowing for new beginnings. So much of helping your child is about being ready to listen when they choose to talk. Often, when vulnerability and despair strike, you as the parent will be met with anger, silence or vitriol because sometimes it’s too hard for a child to name their emotions. Don’t take it personally – it’s up to you to help them express how they are feeling.

If your child starts to demonstrate signs of distress such as social withdrawal or anger (also look out for changes in their sleep patterns or skipping meals) encourage them to talk to you or reach out to a teacher if needed – reminding them that this is an act of strength. As a parent, trust your instincts about when to check in on their friendships (but also don’t get too involved – for example it’s better to speak to the school if the problem continues rather than approaching the parent of the person involved). Try and find a time to talk with them when you won’t be interrupted so you can give them your full attention. Sometimes this can be just before bed. It is important to support your child when they are feeling vulnerable, but help them recognise their own resilience. Talk about all the things that make them strong and brilliant. And though it can be really hard not to jump straight in to solve their problems, it is your role to offer gentle, solution focused guidance.

With older children who have their own mobile phones, it’s worth agreeing to some basic rules: perhaps it’s that you get to follow them on social media or send them regular messages. It’s so important to teach them that what is said on Instagram, Tik Tok or Facebook can stay online for everyone to see and can be very damaging for young people’s self-esteem and confidence. Adolescents are naturally impulsive and find it hard to consider the consequences of their actions, so it’s our job to remind them of this and make sure they are always kind and accepting of others. 

Teens can also get very caught up emotionally in their friendships and struggle to look at things objectively, which is where you come in. Listen and support them when they talk to you, but also play devil’s advocate if necessary. Encourage them to see things from the other person’s point of view and make sure they put things into perspective. 

For teenage girls, there are a series of books called ‘A Smart Girl’s Guide To which are useful, not only for the self-care side of things but also the emotional aspect. For example, ‘A Smart Girl’s Guide to Worry’ and ‘A Smart Girl’s Guide to Knowing What to Say’ are both brilliantly written and perfectly tap into what girls of this age need to build confidence and navigate their friendships.

 

For more information or to book an appointment with Hannah, visit HannahAbrahams.com

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