One of the most internally agitating experiences is to see your child struggling in their social relationships. Maybe your kid is getting bossed around, or is the bossy kid! Or your kid complains that they feel hurt when they get excluded from a particular friend group or when they’re rejected by a kid they really want to be friends with. A friend decided to sit with other kids at lunch, leaving your child on their own. A kid who was close with your child last year has new friends now and now ignores your child at school. Today, I’m talking about how to support your child when they come to you with their friendship problems.
Gentle parenting resources for friend drama
It’s heartbreaking when your child is down in the dumps over a friendship kerfuffle. It sucks to see your kid’s feelings hurt, to hear about other kids saying or doing less-than-kind things to your child. You might feel guilty or like a bad parent if you don’t step in to fix it for them somehow. Do you talk to another child’s parent? Coach your child to do or say certain things? Should you side with your child against another child? You might spend a lot of time with these kinds of questions running through your mind – as your internal search for the ‘perfect’ solution builds to dread and anxiety about your child’s future social life. Fear not! I’ve got 7 tips for helping your kid cope with the ups and downs of kid-friendships.
1- Understand social development
Navigating social interactions and relationships effectively requires skills in the areas of social communication, emotional regulation, cognitive skills and social problem-solving skills. Social communication is about the verbal and nonverbal communication that takes place in social interactions, like taking turns or using neurotypically-appropriate eye contact. Emotional regulation is about the ability to change your internal emotional experience and/or change your external and behavioral expression of emotion in social situations. That might look like staying calm during a conflict or disagreement with a friend. Cognitive skills like thinking, reasoning and executive functions like focusing attention help kids pick up on things like social cues and respond accordingly. Social problem-solving skills are important for conflict resolution and social flexibility.
Because the frontal lobe of your child’s brain is in a state of ‘becoming’ until around 25 years old, it’s going to take them a while to hone their social skills. Every child develops at their own pace. And if your child has a neurodevelopmental condition like adhd, autism or a learning disorder – that means they’re likely delayed in one or more of these skill areas – they may even be up to 2 years behind their same-age peers when it comes to social development. So be patient. It takes time for children to develop and learn to maintain healthy friendships. Expect ups and downs. Gaining social competence can be a complex process of trial and error.
2- Take advantage of real-life moments
Be the kind of friend and have the types of friendships you hope your child will be and have. Take opportunities to talk about various kinds of friendship, what to expect from friendships and how to be a good friend. Use sibling squabbles as an opportunity to scaffold conflict resolution with them so kids can have a chance to practice using those kinds of skills.
Be deliberate when you’re in a new situation and talk about your social processes aloud. You can say things like, “I don’t know a lot of people who are going to the neighborhood barbeque, so I’m going to make sure to introduce myself to people and tell them a little bit about me and our family. Maybe someone will have a kid your age!”
Dr. Coor offers some tips for those moments during playdates when you feel a little deer-in-the-headlights because limit setting or mediating between kids means having to manage the feelings and behaviors of kids who aren’t your own. Listen in the player below.
How you might show up
If you’re doing a meal train for parent-friends caring for a newborn or recovering from a surgery, invite your child to help make a card and talk with them about what you’re doing and why. When your neighbor gives you the key to their house for emergencies, say, “Robert is counting on me to be helpful in an emergency. I need to find somewhere safe to put this key so I know where it is if he needs it. He’s trusting us!” If you know you and your child will be getting gifts from extended family who don’t know you well, set expectations in advance: “We may get gifts today that we don’t love, but I’m going to make sure I show appreciation for the time and effort it took to get a gift for me, because giving a gift is such a kind thing to do.”
Seeing is learning
Let your kids see you moving on from friendships that aren’t working for you anymore. This helps to remind kids that relationships sometimes run their course, but that doesn’t mean it was a waste of time. It was good while it was good, now it’s not – you’re not being disloyal, you’re being authentic. You can model being inclusive by having an adult peer group of different races, cultures, identities and abilities and showing appreciation for those various characteristics. You can let your kids see you including someone who is trying to join in an activity with you.
Kids aren’t born knowing about social skills like gaining/respecting consent, cooperation, communication, reciprocity and negotiation – or the importance of being friendly, helpful, fun and kind to people you want to maintain connections with. So talk about these concepts in everyday life as being important in any relationship that you care about and want to maintain.
3- Be the adult
You are the person in your parent-child relationship who has a fully developed brain. So you often have to function as your kid’s ‘external’ frontal lobe. Model being strong and sturdy in the face of challenging situations. Don’t become outwardly fearful, anxious or angry if your child is having a friendship struggle, and don’t become overly involved. It’s so important for your child to learn how to resolve their own conflicts. Unless ongoing abuse is occurring, when your child brings up their friendship difficulties, normalize them by using phrases like “Lots of kids have worries about friendships and/or struggles with friends.”
I know it’s hard to hear about another kid treating your kid poorly, but avoid holding grudges. If your child’s friend does something to upset them, don’t hold it against them, take sides, or speak negatively about them. Instead, focus on helping your child make sense of their feelings and move forward.
Slow things down when emotions are escalating. If your child is getting upset with a friend, help everyone take a break from the situation and when emotions have cooled, give them just enough help that they’re able to see each other’s perspective and brainstorm solutions.
Parenting is stressful. Dr. Coor uses respectful parenting tools to help you make space for you and your child to have a more collaborative and peaceful relationship. Listen in this player:
4- Respect your child’s social autonomy
Do not assume your child feels the same way you do about other children. You might love little Judy from down the street, but just because your child plays with her once or twice doesn’t mean they’re going to be best friends. If your child doesn’t seem to like another child, don’t force them to play together. Conversely, even though you don’t like one of your child’s friends, keep it to yourself. Give your children the power to make their own choices. It is important to respect your child’s feelings and allow them to choose their own friends.
5- Listen more than you talk
When your child comes to you with a friend dilemma, don’t attempt to fix their problems or rush them into cheering up. Ultimately, the best “help” you can give is to take your child’s perspective and feelings seriously. Simply reflect back what you hear; your only job in these situations is to understand the problem from their point of view. You can’t take your child’s difficult feelings away or change them, but you can be a witness to those feelings and show your child that those feelings matter to you. When your child is upset about something, they likely want to be listened to, and sometimes they may want comfort in the form of your silent (but distant) presence or they may want to snuggle. But always exhaust those options first before you jump into fixing-mode.
6-Help your child problem-solve
When an upset child has ‘wrung themselves out’ of big feelings and perhaps big tears, they might ask for help, or at least be ready to accept help if you offer it. Facilitate problem solving by asking them open-ended questions that encourage self-reflection on their part.
You can help your child identify their own solution to their problem by staying curious about their experiences, feelings and needs. But also help your child be curious about the perspective of their peer or peers. How might they be thinking and feeling? What do they want to do about this problem? How do they think their solution will impact both themselves and the other child/children? Can they identify the qualities they want in a friend? What kind of friend do they want to be? Are there things they want to be different in the friendship? Do they have realistic or sustainable expectations? Help them understand why or why not.
7- Be your kid’s “soft place to fall”
The relationship you have with your child is not only where your greatest influence with them lies, but also where they begin to learn relationship skills. Every interaction with your kiddo is an opportunity to model healthy interaction. The higher the quality of your relationship with your child, the more likely they are to show understanding and concern for others’ emotions. When your child knows without a shadow of a doubt that they can bring any of their problems to you and you’ll be supportive when they do, it means your relationship will give them the resilience they need to overcome their friendship challenges when they arise.
When your child says things like “Sue is always bossing me around!” or “Erin and I got in a fight” or “Jack isn’t my friend anymore and he’s never coming over again!” Avoid high emotionality, dismissals, interruptions, platitudes or trying to ‘fix’ it for them. In moments like these your child needs you to be a caring, interested, reassuring, calm, and listening parent. You can be the model and the coach that helps guide them toward a better understanding of social interaction and the process of making, maintaining and sometimes ending friendships. Accept that your child will face social turbulence as they’re growing up. To learn about friendship kids have to be in friendships – and sometimes it’s just messy, until it isn’t!
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.