Children and Friendships

Parenting Tip: Children and Friendships

Children with friendship problems come from all types of families. These problems are not a sign of poor parenting. Some children have difficulty making friends or keeping friends and some children have difficulty picking up on the social cues required for maintaining relationships. If your child is having friendship problems, discuss this with your child openly. You are the best person to help your child solve children and friendship related issues.

“A good friend is someone who plays with you at recess and shares his potato chips with you at lunch” says six-year old Kyle. Ten-year old Katie confides, “My best friend knows my biggest secrets and won’t tell anyone”.  “You gotta have trust and respect with your friend or they aren’t really your friend”, states twelve-year-old Jimmy. To a first grader, a close friend is anyone they play with, especially with regular frequency. Children begin to share special interests such as sports or dance by fourth grade. By fifth and sixth grade children become closer, self-disclose and support one another.

The research shows that children with chronic difficulties making and keeping friends were more likely to drop out of school and have drug problems in adolescence. Children who did not ever have a close friend outside of the family grew up to be lonely young adults. Researchers have found that close friends in childhood teach each other how to communicate and solve disagreements. Close friends support each other in stressful times and help each other to look beyond their own needs and become sensitive to others.

Play dates have become popular in recent years. Researchers at UCLA devoted to social skills and helping children make and keep friends have found that one-on-one play dates are the best way to build close relationships. This involves having only one child over and allowing your child to be completely responsible for entertaining the other child. The children should be allowed to play without interruption from siblings (or parents!) for at least two hours. Experts recommend that children have at least four hours of play with another child per week. Shy children may need help with introductions and initiating interaction.

Steer your child toward interactive play when he or she has friends over. Certain activities, especially TV and videogames if carried to an extreme, can interfere with your child’s ability to develop friendships. Children need to learn how to have fun, talk, and solve problems with other children. Watching TV or playing videogames for most of the playtime prevents this, since the children learn little about each other.

When your child has a play date, help them choose games that require two or more players, that have simple rules, and that don’t require more time that your child is able to sustain attention. Avoid toys that encourage aggression such as guns, swords, or toys with projectiles because children easily get their feelings hurt (and sometimes are physically hurt). When you teach your child to play games, stress the importance of playing by the rules, waiting patiently until the other player has completed their turn, and being kind to their friend whether your child wins or loses the game.

When your child is initiating friendships at school and at activities, timing is important. Studies show that children who try to make friends when the teacher or coach is talking, or when other children are trying to work in the classroom do not make friends. It’s best for children to try to make friends on the playground and in the lunchroom, or when children are waiting or unoccupied (before or after school, before or after team practice).

If your child has difficulty joining other children at play, help them practice this skill. Children who are successful at joining others say that there are rules of etiquette for joining in. Successful “joiners” first watch the other children play to show interest. While your child is observing other kids at play, coach your child to figure out the game rules, note which team is winning, and check to that the skill level of the children playing is about the same as his or hers. Children who don’t effectively join in may watch others from too far away or start playing without knowing the game, disrupt the game, or annoy the children by asking what they are playing. Coach your child to initially watch silently or say something nice to the other children such as “Nice shot.”

The next step is to wait for a pause in the game before asking to join. Boys should ask to join the team that needs players or that needs the most help (the losing side). Girls should ask the girl who owns the jump rope or ball to join.  Children who break the “rules of etiquette” only want to join the winning side or try to make the other children let them play “If you don’t let me play I’ll tell the teacher.”  It is important for a child to accept no for an answer (without complaining) and move on if the other children do not let the other child join in that game. If your child has trouble with aggression, let them play for about fifteen minutes and then tactfully take your child out of the game (to run errands, etc.) Gradually increase the time they stay in the game while continuing to work on good sportsmanship teamwork skills.

Good sports take the game seriously, follow the rules of the game, and let the other children have a good time by staying in position, waiting their turn, and avoiding arguments. A child who wants to win at all costs may make the mistake of clowning around (e.g. stealing the ball and not giving it back), breaking the rules, trying to play all positions, not letting others play, getting into arguments by playing the referee (e.g. “That was a foul, you’re out!”), or walking away when tired of playing or when losing.

In addition to being a good sport, children need to learn how to respond to teasing. If a child is being teased, the best strategy is to make fun of the teaser’s inability to tease well. For example, they might respond to teasing with, “Can’t you think of anything else to say?”; “Ha! Ha! I think I heard that one in kindergarten!”; “Tell me when you get to the funny part.”; or “And your point is…???”. The key is not to cry, get angry or shrink back from playmates, but rather to assert themselves and to be prepared with several comebacks.

The business of making and keeping friends can be tricky at times, but is well worth the work. Developing good social skills and making friends provide many rewards throughout life.