When children are small, parents get to set up play dates and choose their friends. Part of the fun of having babies when your friends are in the same stage of life, is watching your children play together while you socialize! But, this time of choosing friendships for our children soon shifts when they become of school age. Children grow and begin to exert their own likes and dislikes, seek out their own friend groups, and try to find where they fit in.
Parents over the years have talked with me about their frustrations with their child’s peer group at school. Often, their concerns are peers who are a negative influence or who bully and tease. In middle school, peer groups contribute heavily to how an adolescent feels day to day, and whether he stays on a positive or negative path.
So, how do you teach your child to find positive friendships at school? Let’s look at some strategies:
1. Work on helping your child develop a healthy self-concept.
Confidence does wonders for helping children avoid negative situations. The better your child feels about who he is, the more likely he will be to stand tall if bullied or treated poorly. Help build your child’s self-concept through daily affirmation. Build him up with your words!
2. Talk about what makes a good friend and what makes a bad friend.
Regularly, ask your child to brainstorm what types of qualities and values good friends have. This will help provide him an internal ‘check system’ when seeking out friendships. When other children do things that are inconsistent with those qualities and values, he can choose appropriately to move on.
3. Equip your child for developing healthy friendships by teaching social skills.
Children naturally struggle with social skills. They are often awkward and unsure of themselves, and conversation with peers often is based on the self-esteem of those involved. For instance, two children who are wanting to be liked and dealing with insecurities will “one up” one another in conversation (i.e. “I scored six points at my basketball game yesterday” is matched with “Well, I hit two home runs at my baseball game last night”). Two children who have healthy social skills and have learned to incorporate them with confidence will listen to each other and interact with kindness (i.e. “My dad got me a new soccer goal yesterday” is matched with “Wow! That’s awesome! Can I can come over so we can kick the ball around?”).
Teaching children how to have conversations that demonstrate active listening and empathy takes time. Be patient and know that your child will pick up the skills over time when you are consistent. You can help your children by teaching them how to make good eye contact when talking with others, listen to what others say, express feelings and opinions respectfully, and find solutions and compromises. This can be through talking about these skills, reading about them together through social stories, and most effectively by modeling these skills with siblings or close friends (by being present and guiding the process). Remember, some children will pick up social skills more readily than others.
4. Share your own childhood experiences with peers who were positive and those who were not.
Make it okay to talk about being wounded or hurt by being open with your child about when you faced peer struggles or had difficulty finding friends.
5. Talk about the quality of friendships being far more important than popularity.
Popularity seems to have a timeless sense about it. I don’t think anyone has ever been through school without using this term at some point! It speaks to children’s desire to be known, liked, and recognized. Children naturally desire these things. For this reason, to tell your child, “Don’t worry about what anyone thinks” is generally not useful.
Instead, validate his desires to be liked by others. Normalize him wanting to be recognized by peers. In doing so, stress the reality that being popular is not synonymous with having quality friends. In fact, being popular can make quality friendships difficult to have. Children who value being liked by the crowd often base their own self-worth on others’ preferences, change who they are to fit in, and struggle with authenticity.
Talk with your child about the downsides of being “popular”. Talk about the beauty of being true to oneself, holding close friendships dear, and not changing oneself for the purpose of pleasing others.
6. Help your child to find positive and affirming friendships if he is struggling to find them.
Connect with parents at school through volunteering or talking with them at events. Then, invite a family over for dinner so the kids can play at your home, or meet at the park for a picnic. Get your child involved in a local youth group. Chaperone youth events if you feel he will be too anxious to go on his own. Often, positive friendships outside of school can be comforting to a child who struggles with confidence.
7. Help your child find an activity or sport that he feels confident at and can grow in.
Find a sport, activity, or class with positive peers in which your child feels he “does” well and can grow. This will be tremendously helpful in building up your child’s confidence and it will also help to satisfy a need for community.
8. If your child is consistently wanting to be around negative peers, redirect his time toward fun things that engage him with your family or good friends.
If your child’s attitude has become disrespectful and mean as a result of hanging around peers who aren’t kind, don’t simply limit him from being with that peer group. Instead, combine limits with inviting him to do things with you and your family that are more enjoyable. This will hopefully lead him to prefer time with you.
You can also introduce positive peer groups. For a younger child, you can do this by changing your child’s environment (school) or inviting kind neighborhood children over to play. For a teen, you can encourage him to get a job working alongside peers who can become good friends.
It may take a while for a child to adjust to change that you feel is necessary. Be persistent.
9. Be present and keep communication channels open. Be an active listener.
When your child comes home from school, is winding down, or comes home from being out with friends, be available and engage him in conversation. Be creative. Make a snack, sit down in his room, or invite him for a walk. Connection will allow quality conversation to happen. Asking the right questions can allow your child to see that negative peers haven’t been helpful or uplifting, and can assist him in focusing on what is healthy and good.