Navigating the waters of childhood friendships can be surprisingly difficult for parents. How do help your kids learn how to make friends? What if your child has a friend you don’t like? Should you intervene when a friend mistreats your child or let him resolve the situation on his own?
Renee Mattson, parent coach and intervention specialist at Child in Bloom parent and educational coaching center, stresses that when it comes to friendship, parents need to take on a teaching role. “Assume your child knows nothing, and it’s your job to teach them everything.”
Mattson offers seven guidelines for teaching children about friendship:
- No teaching in a tantrum- Always teach new friendship skills outside the moment, not in the heat of battle.
- Everybody needs a tool- When you see a negative interaction, give both kids a new strategy to make it go more smoothly next time. Don’t just correct one child.
- Use visual examplesTry role playing, for instance, to support your child’s new friendship skills.
- Start at home- The best place to practice friendship skills is at home. Use the same ideas, concepts and tools with siblings.
- Plan for transitions- Always move into and out of the play situation by previewing the expectations in the beginning and reviewing at the end.
- Expect progress, not perfection- Kids are growing in their friendship skills and gains can’t happen overnight.
- Give do overs- Children need opportunities to rewind and try it again.Mattson also suggests finding examples of friendships in books, movies and TV shows to discuss.
“When you see or experience a positive friend situation, notice it, and then positively reinforce it,” she says.
In addition to introducing and reinforcing these basic tenets of friendship, Mattson offers some easy ways to incorporate these concepts into everyday home life. She suggests a few key words and phrases:
- “Me first” goes last- Teach your child to think of their friend’s needs before their own and make sure they see that a good friend will do the same.
- Stay, play, walk away, or say –These are socially appropriate responses to a friend interaction. When a friend comes into my space, I can stay next to them. I can play with them. I can walk away and go to a different area, or I can say something to let the child or an adult know what I need.
- Move beyond “Stop!” and “Quit!”- Help your child learn to speak in specific terms to their friends when a conflict arises. Instead of saying “Stop it” have them say, “Stop hitting me on the head.”
Regarding friendships that are difficult
Mattson suggests dealing with negative friend situations head on. “If you are avoiding a certain child or social scene because you or your child have been burned before, you could be missing out on the perfect teachable moment,” she says. “Setting up another get-together will provide your child with the practice they need in handling difficult situations.”
Sometimes an honest conversation with the other parent is appropriate, says Mattson. When this happens, she says to stick to the facts and try not to get emotional or personal. If things still don’t get better, it’s okay to end a friendship on behalf of your child, leaving a window open for progress later, if possible. “It’s okay to say that we no longer play with that child because he just isn’t ready or willing to follow our house rules.”
Friendships play an important role in the lives of our kids – and in our lives as parents as well. By being aware of how you model what it means to be a good friend to the important people in your life, your children will see the benefit of investing in these relationships even when they can be challenging.