The Buddy System
As adults, most of us know the power of a good friendship. There's no substitute for having someone to bounce ideas off of, to share a cup of coffee and deep conversation with, to pray with when we're struggling and rejoice with when we're celebrating.
The same is true for our children. Friends help them feel good about themselves and build their social skills. Childhood friendships also help our children develop intimacy—a skill they'll need later in life when they start building adult friendships and even a marriage relationship.
Although parents often take a "let kids work things out for themselves" approach to friendship, experts say it's important to be proactive—not reactive—in helping kids make friends. This means everything from teaching your child good friendship skills to making your home a center of "friendship activity"—even if it means your grass dies from daily soccer games or all your clean sheets are draped over chairs to make forts.
But perhaps the most important factor in helping your child build healthy friendships is to recognize that every child has his or her own unique challenges when it comes to making friends. Understanding these hurdles can help you guide your child toward solid friendships.
The Shy Guy
Does your child sit alone on the sidelines while the other kids play baseball? Or hang around just outside a group of kids because he's too shy to join? Chances are, all your child needs is a little encouragement and practice to mix comfortably in a group and learn to meet other kids.
One way to ease the hesitation of a younger child is to have him bring an "ice breaker" toy or activity into a new play situation, suggests Dr. Fred Frankel, psychologist and author of the book Good Friends Are Hard to Find (Perspective Publishing). Sidewalk chalk, jump ropes, balls and other "active" toys can help entice other children to play with your child. Having a toy to share also gives your child a reason to join others, which can help him be more confident in his approach.
Role playing can be a great teaching tool for kids 11 and under who want to overcome their shyness, says licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Karen Maudlin. This can involve anything from brainstorming about open-ended entry lines ("I really like your Beanie Baby. What other ones do you collect?") to teaching your child about nonverbal cues and body language that signal when a group is open to someone joining (making eye contact, smiling) or not (the kids turn their backs or look away when you look at them).
Maudlin says older elementary kids and young adolescents who suffer from shyness can also find encouragement in stories of your successes and failures with childhood friends.
With shy children, it's essential not to force them to be more social than they want to be. Pay attention to the cues your child is giving you. If he seems reluctant to approach new kids, let him wait until he feels more comfortable. You can keep working on building his confidence at home or in situations where he feels more confident.
The One and Only
Children without siblings are usually pretty used to playing by themselves and might be more tuned in to the adult world rather than their own age group. Kevin Leman, author of The New Birth Order Book (Revell), says "only" children may also gravitate toward much older or much younger children. "Many 'only' children are very mature, confident and organized," Leman says. "Kids their own age may seem juvenile in comparison. On the other hand, if they form a friendship with a child much younger, the only child can be in control and call all the shots. This is not what they need, either."
While it might seem like obvious advice, it's important for parents of an only child to intentionally foster relationships between their child and other children of the same age. These friendships can help an only child learn to share, compromise and negotiate. Even an only child who shows strong social skills with adults can benefit from regular interaction with peers.
The phone rings off the wall. The mailbox is stuffed with party invitations. Everybody wants to be your child's friend. Although parents of a shy child might think this situation would be utopia, parenting a social butterfly is also challenging. Maudlin says it's healthy for preschool and kindergarten children to have a large number of friends. But by the time your child is in second grade, he should have developed a smaller circle of close friends.
"If you see everybody, you aren't seeing anybody enough," Frankel says. That doesn't mean you have to limit your child to only a few friends. Instead, help your child focus on a few friends she'd like to know even better. You can do that by making sure your child isn't afraid to politely say no to invitations. Encourage your child to have one-on-one time with the friends she enjoys the most. Inviting one child to spend the night, eat out with the family, or attend a special event will help your child develop deeper relationships.
The Unfriendly Friend
Sometimes our children bring home friends we just don't like much. But if your biggest complaint is that this friend is loud or messy, try to respect your child's choice. Occasionally, however, your child may choose a friend who isn't just annoying but downright dangerous. That's when it's time to set some boundaries.
Don Otis, author of Teach Your Children Well (Baker), remembers his 11-year-old son, Justin, spending the night with a new friend. About midnight, Otis got a call from his son asking to be picked up from the friend's house. Otis learned that the family Justin was visiting had been watching X-rated movies on cable, and that the friend's father had been verbally abusive. Otis affirmed his son for calling him, and the family set some new boundaries.
"We still don't forbid our kids to go to houses where the parents are not Christian, but we decided we need to know the family better if there's an overnight visit involved," Otis says.
Usually, setting boundaries and talking to your child about your concerns in a non-judgmental way will help keep an unhealthy relationship in check. Most experts encourage parents not to completely end a relationship between the child and her friend unless the child is in danger. For preschoolers, "danger" might mean the problem friend is a hitter or biter who continues the behavior even after intervention. For older children, "danger" might mean the friend is involving your child in skipping school, taking drugs, or other illegal activities.
Take time to talk about your concerns with your child. For kids elementary-age and older, explain why you think the relationship is not a positive one. Start by outlining the problem: "I know you really like Brian, but we're concerned about his temper." Then set boundaries. "Because Brian has a hard time controlling his anger, we only want you to see him at our house."
Otis reminds parents that it's critical to include your child in the problem-solving process. When your child takes the time to think through what's right and wrong and learns how to set boundaries, it helps her develop strong decision-making skills. Otis notes that if we simply impose our decisions on our children, they'll have a harder time choosing positive friendships on their own.
Most of us remember our best friend from childhood and hope for a similar experience for our own children. After two moves, my 12-year-old daughter still writes regularly to her best friend in Tennessee and her best friend in Indiana. She now has a best friend in Illinois. All three of these relationships have been instrumental in helping her grow spiritually and socially, especially in the areas of thoughtfulness and sharing.
Having a best friend—or two or three—also helps a child learn commitment, negotiation skills and consideration. "Best friends are the early route to developing empathy," Frankel says. "With a best friend, you have to put their interests on an equal par with your own."
Best friends can be especially important as your child enters adolescence. At that phase, every child can use a trusted ally who will stand with him or her through the emotional, physical and social ups and downs of becoming a teenager.
If your child has trouble finding a best friend, try involving her in activities she enjoys where she can meet kids with the same interests. Encourage her to invite a potential friend over for a video or pizza. If your child needs a little extra help coming up with activities to do with her new friend, strategize with her on how to make the time successful. Ask, "What does Courtney enjoy doing? Since she likes board games, maybe you can have her bring her favorite one with her."
After her friend's visit, talk with your child about how it went. "Did you have a good time with Courtney? What did you like about her? What could have gone better?"
Don't worry if the role of best friend gets passed around a little. As long as your child is enjoying his friendships and continuing to thrive because of them, you can be confident he's just a normal kid.
We adults rarely make friends the first time we meet someone. Sometimes we develop friendships that simply don't last long. Kids are no different. Our job as parents is to help our kids learn when to move on and when to keep trying when a friendship falters.
"It's normal for kids to have things that don't work out—and that includes friendships," Maudlin says. "They are learning. Making good friends can be a trial-and-error process."
As your child grows, her ability to make friends will change and grow with her. To help your child develop strong, healthy friendships, stay involved in the process. Give your child plenty of opportunities to meet people and watch her develop friendships in her own special way.
Cindy Crosby is a writer and mother of two. She and her family live in Illinois.
Plan a Great Play Date
One of the most important ways parents can help their children develop good social skills and lasting friendships is through one-on-one play dates. Dr. Fred Frankel, director of UCLA's Parent Training and Children's Social Skills Programs, offers the following tips in his book Good Friends Are Hard to Find (Perspective Publishing):
- Ask your child who she'd like to invite. You might be surprised by the answer.
- Set the date, and plan a reasonable amount of time for it. If it's the first play date for the two children, keep it short (usually about two hours). Short times that are successful leave both kids wanting more.
- Respect your child's one-on-one play date by making other arrangements for his siblings. If a sibling will be around, consider making a "play date-only" area (like a bedroom or play room) that's off-limits to the other sibling.
- Have a cleaned-up area for the kids to use as their play area. This may mean helping your child pick up his room or mowing the grass, depending on the activity your child has planned.
- Supervise the play date, but stay in the background. Be ready to monitor sibling interference, step in to resolve disputes that can't be worked out or offer a snack.
- If the play date is at a friend's house, spend a few minutes at pick-up time chatting with the other parent. Let her know you care about how the kids' time together went. Don't be a "hit and run" parent who drops off a child at a play date without ever getting out of the car.
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The Buddy System
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