kidsandfriendsWith school starting up again, it’s important that parents think about ways they can help their children succeed not only academically, but also socially. The ability to make and keep friends doesn’t just make kids happy; it also provides a number of crucial developmental benefits, including self-esteem, companionship and peer guidance.  These become important later as children transition from focusing on parents to prioritizing peer relationships by the teen years, so why not start early?

The Value of Friendships
Friendships allow kids to practice important skills, like self-control, and the opportunity to reflect on one’s own behavior and understand the effects of one’s actions on others.  Research also clearly indicates that friendships buffer kids from the negative effects of stressful life events and promote resilience. For all of these reasons, social functioning is an important indicator of overall mental health.

That said, all friendships are not created equal, and they change with age. When kids are younger, they tend to have rule-based friendships in which emphasis is placed on fairness and equality. Kids usually meet at school, a shared community activity (e.g., church, karate) or through family friends, and parents usually orchestrate get-togethers.

As kids get older, they transition to more mature friendships that are based on shared values more than shared specific interests.  Setting children up for success in the more regimented world of earlier friendships allows them to experiment and make informed choices down the road as they grow and mature.

What Parents Can Do
It’s important for parents to remember that they have a big role in facilitating play dates and activities with friends outside of school.  Parents should encourage their young children to identify a peer or several peers who they would like to spend more time with and then be prepared to reach out to parents to coordinate play time.

Supporting social engagement and development can require more of a commitment if you have concerns about your child, or if he or she struggles with social anxiety or autism spectrum disorder. But remember: your child still needs to practice socializing, even though the process of making friends might be more gradual.  For example, parents may need to accompany children on play dates and eventually “fade out,” allowing the child to work up towards periods of independent play.

The Elephant in the Room: Bullying
An issue that always comes to mind when discussing socialization is bullying, which can wreak havoc on developing friendships for bullies and bullied alike. Bullying happens when a child repeatedly and intentionally does something mean to another child. It’s normal for kids to be mean to one another every now and then (like excluding a child from a game or calling another child names), but bullying is a more serious and chronic problem.

Parents can help their children who might be at risk of being bullied by doing the following:

  • Teach your child to tell a grownup and not ignore bullying.
  • Stay engaged with your child’s school and form a partnership with teachers and key school staff to monitor the situation.
  • Talk with your child calmly and show you care without blaming him for being bullied.
  • Discuss solutions together and practice coping via role-plays, such as assertively saying in a loud voice with head held high, “Don’t talk to me like that!”

Kids often bully because they have a strong desire for social power, like being in charge of others, or have difficulty taking the perspective of others.  If you are concerned that your child might be a bully, you should:

  • Condemn the behavior, not the child. A child who is bullying others is often struggling in some way and likely needs some help.
  • Set clear expectations for appropriate social behavior and be prepared to enforce rules by praising appropriate behavior and punishing mean behavior.
  • Help your child to “make repairs” for the child she bullied, e.g., an apology, drawing a picture or bringing in a treat for the other child.
  • Increase your involvement with your child’s school so you can monitor the situation to be sure it’s resolved, and try to set aside some extra quality time with your child (e.g., 20 minutes, 3 times per week) until the bullying is under control.
About Dr. Jamie Howard

Jamie M. Howard, PhD, is Child Mind Institute's Director of the Stress and Resilience Program; Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center.

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