Helping young children make friends

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Parenting Article No. 37
riendships and successful peer relationships play a significant role in a young person's life. Friends contribute in a huge way to children's social and emotional development so it is vital to encourage positive ways of relating in our own children and their friends.

Making and maintaining friendships is a very complex skill for many children to acquire. To do it successfully means that they are able to draw on and use one or more behaviours from a growing repertoire of social behaviours. Kids have to know how to join in with group activities, to be approving and supportive of their peers, to manage conflict appropriately and to exercise sensitivity and tact in their interactions.

Children usually form friendships with little or no help from parents but sometimes a child may have trouble in establishing positive social relationships. Parents can be involved, particularly in the initial stages of the relationship building process by assisting in the development of:

  • Trusting others and being trusted in return.

All of these skills can be introduced and developed in the family setting with parents providing the necessary positive support and guidance. Parents often want to smooth the way for their kids and in so doing they actually deprive their children of opportunities to learn and practise desirable ways of relating to their peers.

Parents need to model that communication, trust and a willingness to persevere can overcome most friendship issues. A useful starting point is how they treat those nearest and dearest to them? How do they let their friends know that they are important to them? Do they remember their birthdays and those of their children? Do they regularly make contact (in person or by phone or letter) and discuss matters of mutual importance? Do they spend time enjoying their company and include them in celebrations, barbecues, parties etc?

In doing these things adults learn about their friends and can recognise when things are not right with their friends – they notice the subtle indications of hurt feelings or sadness or pain, and can acknowledge those feelings in a way that comforts and shows they care. Parents should help their children learn to look for such signs and unspoken signals and then help them to react in an appropriate manner. This can be done by comments such as “Peter looks like he wants to play by himself for a little while. Ask him later if he wants to play with you”.

When a young child says to a peer “I hate you and I don’t want to be your friend”, the parent might talk with their child about what it is about the other child that makes them no longer liked or what triggered the comment. Often it is the situation or other child’s behaviour that is disliked rather than the child itself. Parents need to encourage their child to identify what it is that is “unliked” and to express their feelings accordingly. They can help by encouraging their child to use phrases like “I don’t like it when you…..” rather than “I hate you.” And by helping their child identify things they like about the other child and reminding them of other positive times that they have had together.

If it is the situation that is unliked the parent may need to help their children to understand that all things will not always go their way and to show how to make compromises or accept that others may want different things.
Final note: Parents sometimes need to be reminded to let children choose their own friends just as they choose theirs. Your child may not wish to be friends with your friends’ children. Friendship between children of friends is not guaranteed or automatic.

For a complete list of Regional Parenting Service articles go to the City of Greater Geelong website

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