Parents play an essential role in helping children foster the foundations of healthy friendships, writes Dr Deborah Trengove. She suggests ways to help them navigate the social journey.
At the beginning of a new school year, it is a good time to think about the central place friends have in the lives of young people. Friendships help children and adolescents experience a sense of belonging, such a critical aspect of personal wellbeing. Friendships are also a platform for developing social and emotional skills, self-esteem and the move towards an independent identity in adulthood. Spending time with friends is hopefully also great fun!
Friendships are dynamic and will change across children’s lives as they grow and explore. They will make new friends through common interests but may drift apart from others over time, when moving in different pathways. For younger children, it can be challenging to cooperate, share and put out ‘friendship fires’, while for young adolescents, working out where (and how) to fit in, sometimes seems like a minefield.
Parents play a vital role in building cooperation and communication skills, the bedrock of friendships. This happens through playing games at home, having problem-solving chats and teaching children how to manage their emotions. Learning to show interest in others, deal with frustrations and talk things through will help your child make and keep friends.
Navigating the bumps
It is important to remember that friendships are not a ‘one size fits all’. Some children seek out one or two close friends, while others are happier with larger groups. Remember that how many parties a child is invited to is not the most important thing: it is the confidence that comes from having genuine connections that counts.
Friendships do not always go smoothly – feeling hurt by others, struggling to find a buddy or a tribe are common experiences for young people and often part of their journey. But while it is normal to experience some ups and downs in friendships when growing up, that does not mean it is easy.
Parents can support their child in navigating these bumps in many ways, often acting as a coach behind the scenes and modelling social skills. Depending on the age and circumstances, teachers can also work with parents to create new opportunities for children to connect, provide feedback on a child’s social strengths and weaknesses, and offer opportunities for making new friends by getting involved in different activities.
Below are some foundations for healthy friendships to foster in your child as they navigate their social journey:
Trust is the number one ingredient for any relationship. After trust comes forgiveness, but without trust, there is no safety or sense that we can depend on others. Trust is expressed through loyalty, keeping promises and being reliable. Reinforce the importance of honesty and consistency in inclusion, not getting drawn into excluding others for passing social allegiances and dramas. Moving away from a disloyal friend may be painful but may be sometimes necessary for parents to encourage.
Having fun together is what friends are all about. There are many ways in which young people build connections, often through common interests: finding others who enjoy similar activities, helps children bond naturally and perhaps find kindred souls. For young children, this often means shared games or pastimes; for older children and teenagers, it might be through music, theatre, sport, social action, chess or debating. These shared interests are important for developing a sense of identity and self-esteem.
Most of us have a deep desire to be heard and for many young people, they turn first to each other for advice or to share their worries. Being an active listener who is attuned to their friends’ concerns can make a big difference – giving time to listen and being sensitive to their friends’ feelings, helps young people know they matter. Sometimes it is about saying less but hearing more.
This is a great quality – for friends and everyone. Thoughtful acts of kindness show that friends care – checking in, cheering up, remembering someone’s birthday. These show young people, and not-so-young people, that their friends care and that they are not alone.
Feeling accepted and not criticised is essential in a true friendship. Being able to be yourself and not feeling you will be judged, builds security in a friendship and confidence in yourself. Children and adolescents come from a range of backgrounds with diverse experiences that not everyone can relate to. If young people can learn to be open and inclusive of others, they are likely to make friends in all sorts of places, reaping lifelong rewards and connections.
Young people play a key role when their friends are struggling with personal issues or difficult circumstances. I have often been asked by students about what can they do to support their friends. My advice is that the role of a friend is to be available, listen and to encourage their friends’ self-care. To share some good times, to hang in there with them, but not to feel responsible for finding answers or solutions. It is important to know when it is best to help a friend seek out support from those with more expertise or responsibility – and realise that this is a wonderful gift.
Extending the hand of friendship
As the new year gets under way, encourage your child, whatever their age, to be open and welcoming by extending the hand of friendship to others, particularly those who are new. It can be daunting coming into a school where students already know each other, when arriving from another country or coming from a minority cultural or ethnic background. Through the bonds formed in friendships, young people enrich their own lives in immeasurable ways and form habits of friendship which will sustain them for a lifetime.
About the author
Dr Deborah Trengove is a former school psychologist and school wellbeing leader.
Deborah’s previous articles for The Parents Website includes Lessons from lockdown: The good things we’ve discovered.