Friends grow and change as our kids grow and change. Within each stage of development, we can help promote friendships based on what are the biggest issues during that stage of life.
Our preschoolers need friends so they can learn to share, communicate, and self-regulate. Preschoolers have to overcome separation from parents and learn to rely on peers and other adults to meet their needs.
When they are in preschool, our kids need us to encourage sharing, kindness, and communication. Practice playing games at home that require them to share. Give them a script for what they can say to a friend that would be kind. Have them practice communicating that with you several times. Keep in mind that sharing is a hard skill for some of our kiddos. They may seem territorial with their toys. That’s okay. That’s normal. We can support growth by encouraging them to share little by little. Then praise them for sharing when they do to reinforce that in the future!
Many elementary-aged kids spend a lot of time focusing on the rules, setting rules, and fairness. I often talk with friends about my son (who is 10) as the “fairness police.” He gets really frustrated when things do not seem “fair” to him. Although this is a developmentally appropriate thing – it can be a hard conversation to have over and over. If your child is around this age and constantly complains about things “not being fair”, that’s normal.
To help them connect better with friends, you can empathize with their perception of things not feeling fair. “I know it doesn’t seem fair to you. What do you think needs to happen differently?” In general, I try to draw out how they are feeling, even if it seems irrational to me. On the other hand, I have also had moments with clients and my own kids when I have just said, “I know it doesn’t seem fair to you, but if it were your way, it wouldn’t feel fair to him. So you have to accept that or walk away and do something else.” I would encourage us NOT to say things like… “Life’s not fair.” or “There are starving children in other places.” Those statements are simply not helpful at teaching your child in that moment. Instead, if you want to truly teach about poverty or fairness, find a great book at the library to work through.
The other thing with friendships in elementary school is the transiency of friends. Lots of kids move during elementary school. So your child may have three best friends who all move away in 3rd grade. Realize that kids are resilient, but that there are a lot of changes in friendships during this stage. We can help foster friendships by encouraging continued kindness and socialization with many kids in their classroom.
You may check in periodically about any changes – perhaps every other week. “Do you have any new friends this week?” or “Have you been playing with anyone new this week?” I just asked my son the other day who he had been playing with and he said, “He’s a new kid in our class, mom.” (Like…duh, Mom!). I had no idea! Then we had a good conversation about the “new kid” and how he was trying to help him fit in.
Teens and the drama (and “romance”)
Teenagers. Oh teenagers. I love working with teenagers! When I was in graduate school, I remember a conversation I had with one of my faculty mentors and he was getting to know me and my goals. He asked which age group I wanted to work with. And I said, “Middle schoolers.” He made this painful, horrified face and immediately said, “Why on earth would you want to do that?!?” Some of you parents of teens might share his sentiment. 🙂
Friendships during our teenagers’ years can be filled with ups and downs. As our teens are figuring out how to manage the new flood of hormones, their bodies are internally making huge changes that we can’t see. All we get to see is the outward expression of that internal growth spike.
This “outward expression” may come off as a bad attitude, crying, screaming, disrespect, or aggression. Our teens may be crushed by a small comment from a friend. They may have a seemingly overreaction to a friend’s comment on social media. All of this goes along with their hormonal growth and their continued efforts to learn how to manage their new emotions.
To support friends, we need to stay involved. They may not want us to hang around or be included, but we have to stay connected so we know what’s going on when they start clamming up! Talk to your kid’s friends. Read what they are reading. Check out movies and YouTubers that they are into. Build your “street cred” so they will open up around you. By being relatable to your teen (and their friends), you are more likely to keep lines of communication open (both with your teen and their friends!).
When three is a crowd.
All of us have been situations where there are three people and inevitably one person gets left out. It can be really hard to know how to respond when our kids feel rejected or left out. The first thing to remember is that we need to listen and have empathy for their feelings. None of us like rejection and our kids are still working through how to manage it. The second thing is to try to get them to be able to manage the friendship themselves. So teaching them words to use to stand up for themselves when they feel left out. “Hmmm. That sounds like it was a hard thing. What do you think you should have said?” or “I remember I felt left out when I was a kid sometimes, too. What happened next?” or “What do you wish happened differently?”
What do you notice about your kids’ friendships?? Please share!