|Kids & Friends:
An Age-by-Age Guide
Melanie G. Snyder
“The greatest sweetener of human life is friendship.”
— Joseph Addison, British essayist
Friendships help children gain confidence, explore new ways ofthinking, develop a sense of identity, learn what works inrelationships and what doesn’t, and practice critical social skillslike conflict resolution, trust-building and empathy. Kenneth H. Rubin,Ph.D., director of the Center for Children, Relationships & Cultureat the University of Maryland and author of The Friendship Factor,suggests that parents take a coaching role to help their childrenmaster the fine art of friendship. Regardless of your child’s age, hesuggests, keep the lines of communication open, offer opinions, bringup aspects of social situations that it would be wise for the child toconsider, and set reasonable limits — all without getting overlyinvolved.
Learning the Basics of Friendship
Children initially learn basic social rules like sharing,cooperation and respect for others through play. They find that othershave their own feelings and ideas, and discover what behaviors resultin pleasant versus unpleasant interactions with others.
Parents can help by providing plenty of opportunities for theirchild to be with other children, especially in unstructured, open playsettings.
“Parents may assume that kids know how to make friends — but theydon’t,” says Dr. Teri Manger, private-practice and school psychologistin Brooklyn. “Parents need to teach and model basic friend-makingskills for children.”
“In Manhattan, it’s difficult for children to have spontaneousfriendships. Everything is a playdate — likely organized by yournanny,” points out Dr. Sara L. Weiss, clinical psychologist based inGramercy Park, and public education coordinator for the New York StatePsychological Association. She suggests that parents arrange and attendinitial play dates, to observe the other children, parents, andnannies, then have your nanny continue the playdates. She also suggestsoccasionally dropping in to playdates unannounced.
Teach and model basic friend-making skills for your child. Dr.Rubin suggests teaching your child how to join a group of children atplay by watching what the other children are doing, listening to theirconversations, moving in closer and then “easing in”. Teach your childto make basic introductions: “I’m Tim. What’s your name?” Help yourchild recognize cues about how others are feeling (smiling, frowning,crying) and empathetic ways to respond.
Preschooler Friendship Troubles
“Problems occur when parents intervene when kids are arguing orhaving a conflict,” Dr. Weiss cautions. Parental intervention may evenlead to strain between the parents. “Let kids work things out,” sheadvises.
More complex problems may occur if a child’s basic nature is eithershy or aggressive. However, in his 25 years of research on children’sfriendships, Dr. Rubin has found that children whose basic temperamentscause difficulty in making friends can, over time and with appropriateparental help, learn effective skills to overcome those difficulties.
Protecting shy children from uncomfortable social settings may onlyexacerbate shyness. Instead, role-play with your child on how to join agroup. Get your child together with other children, offer gentleencouragement, then step back and be as non-intrusive as possible.Afterward, acknowledge your child’s efforts in engaging with others.
If your child displays aggressive behavior toward others, firstclearly let your child know such behavior is unacceptable. Help him/gerunderstand how these actions cause difficulty in making friends. Helphim/her observe others’ feelings, including nonverbal cues like bodylanguage, facial expressions and tone of voice, and find alternativeways to express feelings.
Choosing and Keeping Friends
When your child enters school, choosing, establishing and maintaining friendships become essential skills.
Michael Thompson, Ph.D., author of Best Friends, Worst Enemies:Understanding the Social Lives of Children, cautions, “It’s a myth thatparents can pick and choose whom their child likes and wants to spendtime with.” Your child will gravitate toward certain children onhis/her own.
However, you can help your child think about what he/she likes anddoesn’t like about other children. Open discussion of what makes for a“good friend” can help your child make better choices and improvehis/her own skills at being a friend.
Talk with your child about his/her strengths, talents and interestsand explore additional opportunities outside school for your child tofind friends with common interests.
Pleasantville, Westchester-based Dr. Pilar Wellansky, who runs“Friendship Builders” programs for kids who have trouble making andkeeping friends, suggests helping children develop a repertoire oftopics with which they can start a conversation when meeting new kids.“There are certain ways to start a conversation that don’t necessarilyoccur to a child naturally,” she points out.
Elementary Friendship Dilemmas
“Best friends” are important to elementary schoolers — and conflict with a best friend can be devastating.
When conflicts arise, Dr. Rubin suggests helping your child thinkthrough the situation and possible solutions with open-ended questions.Ask, “How are you feeling toward your friend right now? What might yourfriend be feeling? What are some different ways you could resolve theconflict? What do you think would happen if…?”
Children also need to understand the basics of making apologieswhen they’ve hurt a friend. Teach them to think about what they’vedone, how to say “I’m sorry,” how to let the friend know they willchange their behavior so it doesn’t happen again, and how to ask whatthey can do to set things right.
The middle school years are largely about sizing up, comparing andfiguring out where you fit into the social hierarchy of cliques andgroups. Help your tween to think critically about cliques, the expertssay. Ask about the different groups that exist at school — who belongsto which groups, why, and what your tween thinks about these groups.Ask how she feels about where she fits in, and watch for additionalnon-verbal clues. Minimize the potential negative impact of schoolcliques by offering ample opportunities for your tween to get involvedwith others outside of school.
“Friendships made outside the school setting give kidsopportunities to reinvent themselves,” says Dr. Weiss. “When kidsaren’t in their regular ‘community’, they can try out different sidesof themselves that they may not be able to do in their schoolcommunity.” Friendships made at camp can be especially intense, becausekids are with each other all day, every day. Dr. Weiss suggestssupporting your tween in getting together with camp friends even aftercamp is over. “Get to know the parents as well as the friend,” sheadvises. “Invite them to your home for a visit, and try to visit theirhome as well, to be sure your child will be in a safe and healthyenvironment when visiting.”
“It’s so critical to network with other parents,” says Dr. Manger,“especially as your child goes through middle and high school.”Introduce yourself at the earliest opportunity. Invite other parents toyour home. Exchange work, home and cell phone numbers and emailaddresses so you can contact each other readily. Talk openly about thechallenges you’re facing as parents. Check in with other parents abouthow they handle various situations and the rules they’ve set with theirtweens. Connect with the parents when your tween is visiting at afriend’s house and invite them to do the same.
Burning Issues on the Tween Scene
“Popularity” becomes a burning issue at this stage for many kids.“Even parents get caught up in whether their kids are ‘popular’ ornot,” says Dr. Weiss.
Dr. Rubin cautions that popularity is not necessarily something toaspire to. His research shows that the most popular kids are notnecessarily the most decent. “If you ask kids who the most popular boysor girls are, you’ll get pretty consistent answers,” he says. “But ifyou ask kids who they would most like to be friends with, it isn’t thepopular kids.”
If your tween is among the “popular” crowd, talk about how he usesthe power that accompanies popularity, recommends Dr. Thompson. Letyour tween know that using that power to exclude or belittle othersthrough teasing or bullying is unacceptable. Instead, encourage yourtween to use “popularity power” in positive ways. Help your tweenunderstand that being popular and being a good leader are not the samething.
If your tween is the one being excluded or teased, listen and showempathy. Reality-test your tween’s perceptions that s/he is beingsnubbed by asking questions like, “What other reasons might there befor Alex to have walked past you and not spoken to you?” Dr. Rubinsuggests several strategies to teach kids to deal with teasing: Standup straight and look the other person in the eye, laugh and shrug offthe teasing comments, or, possibly, agree with the teaser (“I know,this is an ugly shirt, isn’t it?”).
However, pay close attention to possible signs of bullying,including reluctance to go to school, wariness, or withdrawal.Encourage your child to talk about what’s going on. Dr. Rubin cautionsthat it’s generally not helpful for parents to offer to step inimmediately. Gather information and brainstorm with your child aboutpossible options to address the situation (avoid the bully, talk withthe bully, request peer mediation, talk with a teacher or other adultin the setting where the bullying is happening). Continue to monitorthe situation, and if your child’s plan of action isn’t working, youmay need to intervene by talking with the other child’s parents or with a teacher or coach who may be able to observe what’s happening.
It’s All About the Friends
After the angst of the tween years, the good news is that by high school, cliques diminish in power and teens form ties with more broadlydefined groups, says Dr. Rubin. You’re also likely to see a lot less ofyour teen, as they tend to spend twice as much time with friends aswith families.
However, Dr. Manger says, “You have more power as a parent than youmay think to continue to influence your teen.” Continue the opendialogue with your teen about friendships and really listen to yourteen. Ask how s/he is feeling about things that are going on withfriends. Use every opportunity to talk about current teen issues, thepressures your teen is facing and acknowledge how hard it is.
Stay tuned in to whom your teen is friends with and set clearexpectations that they will let you know where they are, who they’rewith, what they’ll be doing, and when they’ll be home. Continuenetworking with other parents. Be aware of current teen issues andevents in the school and community.
A common parental concern with teens is possible involvement with a“bad crowd”. If you’re concerned about your teen’s friends, first besure you aren’t jumping to premature conclusions. Invite them to yourhouse, then quietly and unobtrusively observe.
If you continue to be concerned, make sure you’re clear on whatspecific things you don’t like about these friends. Talk with your teenabout what he likes and doesn’t like about the others and calmlyexpress your specific concerns.
“You can ‘differentially reinforce’ certain friendships,” Dr.Manger observes, “by tuning into the interests of friends you approveof and offering to let your teen invite those friends on a relatedouting.” Invite those friends and their families to your home. Finally,continue to help your teen expand his or her circle of friends throughinvolvement in a wide variety of activities.
“Children’s friendships are at the heart of their existence,” saysDr. Thompson. “Their friends are the air they breathe and the waterthey swim in.” With your coaching and support, your child can learn theskills necessary for a lifetime of meaningful friendships.