Helping Children Foster Healthy Friendships

An important part of growing up is learning how to make friends and establish relationships, whether that’s at school, with neighborhood playmates or meeting new youngsters at the playground. Some children struggle with how to go about creating and maintaining solid relationships with peers, and it can be hard as a parent to watch this happen. People of all ages have a basic need to feel loved and appreciated by others, and as a parent there are many ways to facilitate your child’s capacity to make solid friendships to fulfill this need. Some of the ways that parents can do this include:

  • Being a good role model – Children watch how their parents interact with their friends and they often will imitate what they see. Parents that have quality friendships give a positive image for children to look up to.
  • Paying attention to a child’s friendship style – Children may have a different way of communicating friendship than their parents. It’s important to notice this and not assume that the child likes the same types of interactions. An example of this would be if the child is more introverted and does not like large group play and the parent does not notice this because they are more extroverted.
  • Making the home a welcoming environment for friends – Tell the child that their friends are welcome at the home and for younger children it could be helpful to have a pre-planned activity or two available (i.e. Dress up or arts and crafts). For young children and even some older children who struggle in this area it can be important for caregivers to take a more active role in setting up play dates. This also is a great opportunity to get to know the child’s friends.
  • Letting the child choose their friends – Be welcoming of friends that have different backgrounds and those with different cultures or religions.
  • Keeping an eye out for bullying – Teasing is a way children communicate with each other but there is a fine line between that and bullying. While letting the child choose the friends they fit with, it is still important to step into a situation if there is a chance the child is at risk for bullying, in which case it may be necessary to voice concerns with the child and intervene. Talk to your child about bullying and explain how words and actions can hurt others.

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    If a child is having trouble establishing or maintaining relationships, a parent can observe how their child is trying to connect with others and see if there are any changes that can be made. Sometimes children believe in the “Magnet Theory of Friendships” in which they think that they need to talk about how great they are in order to attract friends. In reality this sort of social interaction often doesn’t work, and it can be seen as bragging or thinking one is better than others. If this is the case, a parent can talk with their child about how they may be perceived this way and change it by:

    • Showing kindness and sharing with others
    • Being a good host and doing what the guest wants to do
    • Finding and focusing on similarities with the new friend
    • Planning play dates with shared fun activities

    Sometimes it is necessary to let children figure out friendships on their own and work through their own conflicts but for some children that need extra guidance, these are just a few ways to help a child learn what it takes to be a good friend.

    Note: This information should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of a mental health condition. Call 612-871-1454 to learn more about Washburn Center’s mental health services for children.