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The moment kids shift from parallel play to attempting to play together in some fashion, adults jump in and assist with the interactions. It’s only natural for parents to want their children to succeed when it comes to establishing friendships, and those early sandbox interactions seem big and important in the moment. It feels as if laying the groundwork on the tot lot will set the child up for a lifetime of social success. To some degree, that is true. When young children learn to connect with others at an early age and receive support and guidance with social interaction skills, they approach friendship making with confidence and are better able to cope with the ups and downs of early friendships. The problem, of course, is that the guidance and support often comes to a grinding halt when academics and homework become the primary focus. And let’s not forget about organized sports and competition. When parents shift from friendship helpers to win-at-all-costs competitive parents, all of that hard work during the early years can really come undone.
The truth is that kids continue to need support and guidance when it comes to friendship skills, even during the elementary years (and beyond). Sure, they need to learn to solve problems independently and parents should step back and let them navigate difficult situations, but they still need assistance by way of open and honest discussions about keeping friends, modeling on the part of the parents and debriefing after difficult peer interactions.
Children who are good at making and keeping friends are children who work on positive social skills as they grow. Listening skills, effective communication, emotional regulation and empathy all play a role in establishing bonds and maintaining healthy friendships. All of these skill sets require regular maintenance, however. You can’t just plant the seeds and hope they grow. They need water, sunshine and a lot of love if you really want these skills to blossom.
Focus on empathy
All too often, empathy becomes an afterthought. When kids are upset and approach parents with a need to vent, parents tend to jump to the defense of their own child. That’s a natural instinct for parents, and it does play a role in helping kids feel supported and loved unconditionally. But evaluating the situation from the point of view of the peer or thinking about how others felt under the circumstances shouldn’t be an afterthought. If you want to raise empathic children, you have to put empathy in the driver’s seat.
Sure, there is a time and a place for venting feelings and verbalizing frustrations about a peer, but kids often need help shifting from venting to empathizing. That’s where parents should step in. Elementary age children tend to focus on justice and fairness. This leaves little room for empathy and understanding. Using a calm and gentle voice tone, encourage your child to step into a friend’s shoes for a moment and experience the situation from a new perspective. Cue your child without giving away all of the answers. Guide your child toward understanding.
With practice, kids learn to think beyond their own immediate needs when friendships go awry. They learn to vent their emotions in a healthy manner first, then circle back and relive the story from a different perspective. That helps kids build long-term friendships.
Teach listening skills
When emotions run high, both negative and positive, kids have a tendency to choose talking over listening. They might quiet down for a moment while another person talks, but only to consider what they want to say next. Active listening skills play a key role in making and keeping friends, and listening skills require regular practice.
Family meals are a great time to work on active listening skills. We love to play a little listening game in our house that I refer to as "favorites." I usually ask one child to describe his or her favorite part of the day. The next speaker has to respond to the first with a follow up comment or question before sharing his or her favorite part of the day. We all jump in and ask questions about favorites and the conversations are lively. When listening seems to fade, I provide verbal and non-verbal cues as reminders.
Active listening is more than sitting quietly while another talks. It’s absorbing the information, seeking more details and responding to the speaker’s thoughts before moving on. All too often kids are simply taught to make eye contact and remain quiet. What we need to teach them is to make eye contact and think about what is being said.
Play it out
Kids run into obstacles with friends at every stage of development. It’s only natural for friendships to change over time. While adults understand the ebb and flow of meaningful friendships, kids get stuck in the moment and can become overwhelmed by feelings of rejection or arguments that feel huge in the moment. They need help navigating the difficult moments.
Role play is a great way to help kids work through confusing friendship situations without pushing them in one direction or another. Through role play, kids can work through their own feelings, consider the feelings of the other person and make choices to resolve conflict and move forward. Listen to the patterns that emerge as your child grapples with frustrating peer interactions and write down a list of potential scenarios for role plays. Choose one or two from a hat each week to work on friendship skills during calm moments. The more your child practices positive social skills at home, the better able he will be to access them in the moment.