by Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D.
Lawrence Cohen is the senior advisor on the PBS Parents Guide to Going to School and author of Playful Parenting. Read more »
Lawrence Cohen took questions about the ups and downs of children's friendships.Rocio from Miami, FL, writes:
Yesterday my sixth-grader told me he is going to fight with one of his friends because of something that happened days ago. Even after I explained to him that violence is not an answer he still wants to fight. What should I do?
As parents, most of us want our children to avoid violence, and to work things out with their words and their minds instead. But we also want our children to stand up for themselves and not be picked on and shoved around.
So we end up in the same situation as many children--especially boys--where the only choices seem to be fighting or being a coward. Our job is to help them keep thinking and keep on thinking until they can come up with a solution that protects their honor and feelings of bravery but avoids violence. I know that solution might be hard to find, but it is always worth looking for. Sometimes teachers and principals can help find the peaceful and honorable solution, but sometimes, unfortunately, they aren't sure either. You see, the problem is bigger than your son or the other child involved or their school--it is a problem in our society that demands that boys to be tough (and now, also, often girls too), that makes honor and dishonor more important values than community and connection, and that makes violence seem cool or powerful.
Because it is such a broad problem, it needs a broader solution, so one possibility is to have a parents' meeting at school to talk about social challenges, or about boys fighting, or about building a community of respect. Good luck with this difficult problem.Maya from Shrewsbury, MA, writes:
My five-year-old daughter who just started to go to kindergarten doesn't have any friend at school and doesn't even try to make friends. She doesn't talk to kids much. She plays well with her younger brother and sister at home, but when it comes to other kids she doesn't try to be friends with them. How can I help her?
Some children are perfectly happy playing with their siblings and cousins, and there isn't any real problem. These kids usually do very well at making friends once they decide that it is important to them. Basically, all their needs for companionship are being met at home, and they won't seek out friends until they feel the need to.
But some children would like to make friends, and don't really know how. They might be shy, or they might make other children angry and annoyed by their behavior, or they might not understand the "rules" of social interactions. I think that if you ask the teacher at school she will probably be able to help you figure out if there is a problem, and if so, what type of problem it is. Then you can work with her on helping her overcome shyness, or learn social skills, or be a good friend.Pattie from Ridgewood, NJ, writes:
My five year old son has difficulty keeping his hands to himself. The teacher says that, while in line at school, my son usually pushes the kid in front of him. While in class, he annoys kids by taking their pencils etc., and he tends to get overly excited when playing and can get very loud. How do I explain to him that he needs to tone it down a bit. He's a good kid, but the school is making feel it's a social problem. He does have friends, but I do notice that when he sometimes plays in a group and kids start playing a bit rough, he usually ends up getting in trouble.
It might seem like a paradox, but kids like this often benefit from more rough-and-tumble play at home with you. They tend to have a high need for physical contact, and the rule at school to keep your hands to yourself leaves them with unmet needs--not necessarily for aggression, but for contact. So horsing around and playful wrestling are a great way to help them (and research shows it helps kids do better in school overall). Here are some tips for keeping playful wrestling/rough-and-tumble play safe and fun:
- Make sure you have a good connection (eye contact, hugs or handshakes before and after)
- Give just enough resistance so that your child has to work at it but eventually they get past you, or pin you, or get out of your grip.
- Don't hold kids down and tickle them, even though they laugh it is an out-of-control feeling.
- Make up a code word that means "stop" (I like to use silly words like "banana") and use it frequently, freezing and helping him freeze until he gets the hang of it. This helps wrestling from escalating out of control.
- Notice if you are feeling angry or competitive, and keep those feelings out of the wrestling.
- Anything that brings giggles--do that some more.
Try playing the sock game--take shoes off, get on floor, and the goal is to keep your socks on and get the other person's socks off.Mistie from Ruston, LA, writes:
My son is five years old and has been diagnosed with ADHD and ODD. He started preschool this year and refuses to make friends with anyone in his class. All he talks about is his friends from day care. Is there anything I can do to help him make new friends?
Children all make friends at different rates, and children who have been diagnosed with attention and anxiety difficulties sometimes have extra challenges. The good news is that it sounds like he did make friends at his old school, so that tells us he is capable of making strong connections. In fact, difficulty making transitions from old friends to new friends isn't entirely a bad thing--it shows a strong sense of loyalty and commitment. So I'd be sure to make opportunities for him to see his old friends, and not just "toss him in the water" with this new bunch. Also, you might want to have over kids from his class one at a time, since I'm guessing he does better with one child than in a big crowd. That way you can help him build friendships without the added anxiety of the larger group. You can also invite over other families if he is resistant to playdates, and after a little while the kids will get tired of grown-up talk and go off to play.Richa from Peabody, MA, writes:
I have a six year old daughter. She is the only Asian in her class. She frequently complains that her classmates ignore her and do not want to play with her. She says they all whisper and run away from her. My daughter is a very emotional child and is always looking for friends. She says that they hurt her feelings. We are trying to give her the best support at home, but she is having a difficult time. Is it because we are from a different culture, or is it just that the children are not enjoying my child's company?
This can be very painful and confusing, and I am very glad that you are thinking about ways to help your child. At age 6, children are very aware of differences and often will choose the people most like themselves to play with. They aren't doing this on purpose to be mean or exclusive, but just because of their developmental stage. However, it is important to push against this trend by building friendships across those lines of difference.
The best way to do this is one-on-one, instead of in a big group. So I would urge you to invite over another family (maybe you can ask the teacher who might be a good choice), and you can get to know the other parents while your child gets to play one-on-one with that child. If you are shy, that might be a hard assignment, but please try, because it will be a big help!
Once kids make a connection one-on-one, they can translate that to the playground at school. I would also recommend talking to the teacher about what she or he has done or can do in the classroom to promote the celebration of diversity and the elimination of exclusion. I would recommend the excellent book, "I'm Chocolate, You're Vanilla," by Marguerite Wright, about racial and ethnic identity in young children--and it might make a good gift for the teacher as well.
You also raise the possibility that any exclusion that happens might not have to do with cultural differences but maybe with some of her behaviors, so you will definitely want to ask the teacher about your daughter's social skills and abilities.Rhonda from Walla Walla, WA, writes:
It seems that girls in third to fifth grade have a difficult time with friendships with other girls. Any developmental reason for this?
I agree, this is often a tricky time for girls and their social development. I think it is partly because at around this age the messages from the broader culture start to come in stronger and louder. Up to that point, parents have had a bigger influence than peers and media, but around third to fifth grade, that often switches. We all know what kind of messages girls are getting about what it means to be female--you have to be super-thin, super-rich, super-girly, into fashion and boys even when developmentally you aren't nearly ready for that, you aren't as smart or strong or important as boys, etc. One research study showed that girls' self-esteem plummets after reading teen fashion or celebrity magazines. Geena Davis, the movie and TV actress, has a great organization called SeeJane (seejane.org
) that helps girls and their parents learn how to filter out some of these damaging messages.
What does this have to do with relationships with other girls? It sets up an overall atmosphere of competition, and also the messages targeted at girls become internalized--or taken inside--and then girls target these messages at each other. Take a deep breath, subscribe to New Moon Magazine, and remind yourself that sisterhood among girls and women is also a strong force in our society.Pam from White Lake, MI, writes:
My child sits with a girl in an assigned seat on the school bus who is in her second grade class. This girl has become increasingly controlling and mean over the past two years . My child has been, by turns, accused of wrongdoing, ignored, and manipulated on the bus. This girl has tried to ruin my daughter's friendships by telling other girls she won't be their friend if they play with our daughter.
This is greatly confusing to process for a seven-year-old and also exceedingly hurtful to someone who has been raised to be kind to others. I have had no luck trying to talk to the girl's mother. What should I do?
You don't say whether or not you've already talked to the school bus driver or the teacher, so I will give you a two part answer to this question:
If you haven't checked out what these other adults see when they observe your daughter and this other child, then I would strongly recommend that as a starting point. Frequently children only give us part of the story--most often the part that casts themselves in the role of the helpless victim.
Of course, that may be accurate, so if the driver and teacher confirm your daughter's reports, you can start by asking them what they have tried, and what they plan to try next, to keep your daughter emotionally safe in school and on the bus.
Also, as you have discovered, you don't have a lot of influence over other children (or their parents). You have much more influence over helping your own child have good skills for coping with the situation, by asking her what she has tried, asking her what ideas she has for trying next, and helping her brainstorm and role-play a variety of ideas.
And finally, though it might be very distasteful, you might want to discuss with your daughter the possibility of inviting the other girl over for a one-on-one play date, since most kids are nicer in that setting. Friendships are more powerful than group dynamics, if those friendships are nurtured. If that's not possible, then nurturing her other friendships one-on-one is a good buffer against the nasty stuff that can happen in groups.Michelle from Plano, TX, writes:
Last year my daughter Jane made a new best friend, Karen, in Kindergarten. Everything Karen desired was of interest to Jane. Now that they are in different classes in first grade, Jane complains that Karen is no longer nice to her and does not associate with her. Jane is making new friends, but really misses the closeness she had with Karen. How do I explain this to my daughter?
Ouch! This definitely falls under the category of "normal social pain." the kind of pain that is real--as you and your daughter know--but is "normal" in the sense that something like it happens to almost everyone at some time in his or her life. And it's also "normal" in the sense that it generally doesn't cause emotional scars, though for those few weeks or a couple of months it seems like it will. In a not-too-long time, but longer than you and your daughter would like, she will also make new friends. But grieving the loss of a close friendship is something that happens in its own time--and that grief is part of what makes us human, and makes friendships so sweet--and at times, bittersweet. Your job is to be, as my colleague Gordon Neufeld likes to say, "an angel of comfort" as you help her face this fact of life she cannot change.Kim from Philadelphia, PA, writes:
I work in a very good daycare with caring and supportive teachers. My question is about a three-year-old boy who bullies others. He entered my class right before his third birthday, was never in daycare before and demands that everything revolve around him. I'm at my wits end! Ive tried spending one-on-one time with him, making him the helper and positive reinforcement for acts of kindness, but the bullying continues. What should I do?
It can take a while for a child to learn that a level of bossiness that works at home with parents or younger siblings doesn't work at school. He may just need a little more time getting the hang of what the expectations are in your classroom about sharing the leadership role. In addition, there is one approach you haven't mentioned, a controversial one: let him "do his thing," and let the other children's responses to him over time be the feedback he needs to adjust his behavior into a more positive direction.
Children do this spontaneously all the time; in fact, the way that most children learn not to be overly aggressive or bossy is that their peers don't like it and don't tolerate it.Shannon from Dayton, OH, writes:
My first-grade son seems to be struggling with friendship issues on the playground. He appears to have many friends--19 showed up at his birthday party--and the kids in the neighborhood seem to like him very well. However, he has told me a number of times now that nobody wants to play with him at recess, he sits on the bench a lot, and when he asks to play the other children say no. I have talked to him about trying to make new friends, because I think he is trying to hang on to old friends from his daycare, as that makes him feel secure. He is a bright child, has no problems physically or academically, and I just am not sure how to best help him.
I wouldn't worry too much yet! First, I'd check with the teacher to see if this is an accurate picture of recess. Often kids come home with sad tales about no one wanting to be their friend, but that is because they are selectively remembering one or two small rejections, while forgetting an abundance of good interactions and inclusion. That's why it's important not to "interview for pain," that is, don't pounce on a child when they come home from school to get the details of how they were mistreated that day. Children learn quick that this is what you are eager to hear about, and they focus their attention on those events (or exaggerate them or downright invent them). Instead, focus on what he is doing to build friendships. And of course, if there is rejection, your child's teacher can help you understand what that's all about too.Melissa from Woburn, MA, writes:
I have a three-year-old daughter who is in her first year of preschool. She is normally a very well-behaved child, but recently she has been having trouble controlling herself when she is with another, specific child. When this child is absent, the problem does not exist. It just seems that the dynamic of the two of them together causes problems. When I have asked my child about this other child, she tells me "she talks too much". The teacher has told me that the other child "gets in (my child's) face". My daughter seems to like this other child and often tells me that she was her favorite friend on any given day. Is this dynamic common in children this age?
Sounds to me like you are correct that the problem lies in the relationship of your child and her classmate, rather than in either child being the problem. The next step, I believe, is to brainstorm with the teacher about keeping them separated (in subtle ways, that don't stigmatize anyone) for a while, to let things cool off, and for the teacher to stay closer and supervise more carefully when they are together. If they get along fine for a little while and then things turn sour, the teacher can perhaps keep track of that and separate them gently before any conflicts arise. These kind of "love-hate" relationships are very common in preschool (and in adulthood, of course, as well). The step after this is to brainstorm with your daughter about some positive and effective reactions to this excessive talking and over-closeness. You can role-play with dolls or stuffed animals, but be prepared for the role-playing to turn into silly play--that's fine, the goal is to release the tension and return the positive warm feelings, not to "teach a lesson."David from Walnut Creek, CA, writes:
I have a 15-year-old son who was diagnosed with a "mild" form of autism. He is high-functioning but has throughout his childhood and adolescence developed virtually no "friendships" away from school. And those in school tend to be casual, without the sharing of confidences, time spent together away from school, and other qualities of real friendships. He also lost his mother suddenly in the summer of 2005. My son has been in "Special Day Class" his entire school career. He just began high school this fall. So, to say the least, it has been a difficult last 16 months. What can you suggest to help my son build and foster friendships?
Friendships can be very tough at age 15, and especially tough for children who have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder or asperger's syndrome or nonverbal learning disability--mild or severe. And of course, dealing with such a profound loss at the same time makes it even harder. Fortunately, there are more and more resources available for children and their parents who have trouble of this sort with making friends. If there is not an asperger's support group in your area, there are many such groups online, and there are more and more books. I especially like books that are first-person accounts of living with asperger's or autism in a "neurotypical" world, such as The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships by Temple Grandin and Sean Barron.
Good luck!Carla from Elkins Park, PA, writes:
My family just moved here and my 12 year old son is having a difficult time making friends at his new school. He is being picked on and teased by the other kids. Even though he tries to be nice to them, they're continually being mean to him. What can he do to stop this and make good friendships?
That sounds very painful, and your first (and probably most important) job is to listen with compassion. But don't focus too much on the tormenting behaviors of others. Instead, gently shift the attention towards how he can cope and turn things around. Ask him what he has tried, how it has worked, and what he can try next. Role-play different strategies at the dinner table. And most of all, help him develop friendships one at a time, since individuals tend to be more open to new people than groups are. Ask the teacher for likely candidates to invite over, and go to school for every possible PTA meeting or other event and invite over another family who seems compatible with your family. Also, look into other social opportunities---sports teams, clubs, religious groups---outside of school, as these often tend to be more welcoming and inclusive than school groups. And then all his social eggs won't be in one basket.Susan from Chanhassan, MN, writes:
My five-year-old daughter has been friends with the neghbor girl, an older 5, since they were babies. They attend the same school and are in the same kindergarten class. It is a very rocky relationship, full of bragging, competition, jealousy and arguments. I see the other girl as very bossy and controlling of my daughter. She will not allow her to make friends with other girls at school, dictates what they play... even insists on tying my daughter's shoes, when my daughter can do this on her own. It's ridiculous to the point that when my daughter got her first loose tooth, the other girl wouldn't let her wiggle it!
iI feel like I'm letting it bother me too much, and that they are acting within the norm for girls their age. But on the other hand, I feel that my daughter is not having a positive school experience because of this and that her self-esteem is suffering.
To make matters worse, it has all but ruined my friendship with the daughter's mother, my nieghbor. She is very sensitive about her kids and will not tolerate any discussion of the matter.
It's often very hard to find a balance between trusting kids to let things work out as they develop maturity over time, and stepping in to prevent hurt feelings or other troubles. And it's hard, as you say, to keep your own feelings separate from your child's feelings. I think that it is always helpful to make a pact with our children's friend's parents: "Our children are going to have lots of ups and downs in their friendships, so let's make a pact to not let it interfere with us being able to talk about things--let's assume that it's never going to be a matter of one bad kid and one good kid, so we can keep a perspective on it and remember that they are just kids and just figuring this friendship out." Of course, not everyone agrees with (or is interested in proposing) this pact.
I would also suggest asking the teacher for help, because this is something she's probably seen variations of quite often, and can help you answer the question of whether this is "normal" or getting out of hand.
And finally, it's important not to tell your child what she should be doing to handle these situations, but to listen and to ask her what she does to try to resolve it, how that strategy works, and what else she can try. Remember, development happens!Sophia from Gainesville, GA, writes:
I think that my daughter bragged about being great at a sport to a new friend she made in Middle School. She was invited to be on a traveling team with this new friend. So she is on the team and is not real good. I think she is being left out by the other girls because they don't see her as a good player. What should I do?
That's a hard and painful way for a child to learn a life lesson, and I think it's important not to "rub it in," since it sounds like she already feels bad. I think the key is to focus on the present and the future, rather than what happened to create the situation. So you can start by saying what you observe, in a matter-of-fact way (not blaming her or blaming the other girls). It also helps to be tentative, "I think that maybe this is what's going on, but I am not sure, maybe you can correct me if I am wrong, it seems like you are having trouble keeping up with the girls on the team, and they might be leaving you out, and that hurts. Is that close to what's happening?" Then brainstorm together about what to do about it--does she want to get some extra coaching, or switch to another team, or work on an individual friendship with one of the girls most likely to be friendly, or meet with the coach--it's important not to flood her with these "good ideas," but to hold them in reserve in case she has trouble of thinking of ideas.Christy from Detroit, MI, writes:
My four-year-old son's teacher says that he has good friendships with several children in his pre-K class. However, there are times when he does things to deliberately annoy the other children. He won't stop after several requests by the other children. His teacher says it's as if he wants to see the reaction. How do we help he stop this antisocial behavior?
First of all, please slow down before calling this "antisocial behavior," since that phrase is usually used to describe much nastier behavior than this. I would see your son's annoying and obnoxious behavior as more of anexperiment: "What will happen if I do this? How can I get a reaction?" The results of the "experiment" will come from the other kids in the classroom--they won't like it, and they'll let him know they don't like it, and he'll learn that in order to have continued friendships, he has to be less annoying. Peers are often better than grown-ups at providing that kind of feedback, and most kids learn pretty quickly.Stacey from Monticello, IN, writes:
I have a three-year-old son who is an only child. He seems to have low social and emotional skills. He spontaneously hits, kicks, and bites the children at school. He also doesn't like to follow directions. Could he have ADD , or is it a phase? I would hate for him to be kicked out of preschool.
What you are describing sounds like trouble with emotional regulation, which is a key social skill. Some children with ADHD also have trouble with emotional regulation, but what you are describing does not sound like ADHD at all. Emotional regulation means having a "dimmer switch" on your emotions, instead of just an on/off switch, so that children can feel a little frustrated, a little angry, or a little sad without those emotions snowballing out of control. A few good ways to help a child develop better emotional regulation are:
Terri from Glastonberry, CT, writes:
- Give lots of cuddling and affection (even after they have been "naughty," because this is when they need it most and punishments tend to make emotional regulation worse, not better).
- Have him draw pictures of how they feel when they are a little mad, a medium amount mad, and really really mad. You can use a number system as well (from one to ten, how mad are you right now).
- Practice ways of soothing and calming feelings, such as slow deep breaths, or rhythmic exercises such as jumping jacks.
- Get out two stuffed animals or action figures or dolls and have one of them be wild and aggressive towards the other one--watch what your child does in response to this kind of game--make the scene silly and funny so he can laugh away some of his tension about his aggressive feelings.
My 12-year-old son does not have a best friend. The kids he plays with around the neighborhood and at school never include him in things,like birthday parties and, recently, trick-or-treating. Even when he asked if he could go they said they didn't have enough room in the car for him. I feel really bad for him and don't know how to help him. He is an only child and not athletic like the other kids. He still tries to play baseball even though he feels he isn't good enough. He will stay in the house all day sometimes and play with Legos. I think he feels he will only be rejected if he tries to play with the other kids. He was diagnosed with mild ADHD in third grade. He takes no meds but takes flaxes and omega. His grades are great in school and he is a very polite child. He is mostly a happy kid except for the friend part.
I usually don't worry if a child doesn't have a best friend, but I do worry when a child has no friends at all, or if a child is being consistently excluded. It often helps to nurture one-on-one friendships, since kids tend to be less tolerant and more rejecting when they are in a group. You can invite over another family, and soon the kids will get tired of the grown-ups and go off to play, but there isn't as much pressure as there is when it is just kids having a playdate. You can look for social settings for him with other kids who share his same interests, somewhere that he doesn't have to force himself to play just because it's what everyone else likes to do. You can ask the teacher which classmates are most likely to be good friends for your child, and invite them over. And hardest of all, you can ask the teacher and other parents what they see in your child that contributes to his being excluded. It is important not to blame a child for being targeted with cruelty, but it is also important to help kids fit in if they just need a little help with social skills.