Children and friendships

Take steps to help your child learn appropriate social and coping skills.
Take steps to help your child learn appropriate social and coping skills. 

Why doesn't he like me anymore? Mum, why don't I have any friends? 

This is probably one of the hardest questions a parent of a young child will have to answer. Children's friendships are a complex web and one that is difficult for adults to understand and unravel. From an early age children establish a social order and intricate rules about social interactions, and often do not take kindly to adults inflicting their own values and beliefs on them. From sibling relationships, through mothers' group, playgroup, creche and educational settings, children have to learn to navigate their way successfully with their peers.   

Children establish a social order and intricate rules about social interactions, and often do not take kindly to adults inflicting their own values and beliefs on them.

While we can't 'fix' friendship problems for children, we can take steps to help them learn appropriate social and coping skills.

When speaking with parents, most will generally say something along the lines of "I just want my child to be happy".  This in itself creates unrealistic expectations for children. Who is always happy? We should not expect that our children will be happy all the time.  Children need to understand that disappointment and conflict are a natural part of everyday life, and that they can cope with life's rough spots.

From an early age it is very useful to expose children to a range of social situations, both with children their own age and children of varying ages. Interacting with older children gives them a model of (hopefully) appropriate social behaviour, and interacting with younger children gives them the opportunity to demonstrate newly learnt skills. You will have seen this when children mimic our own words with their younger siblings (e.g. an older sibling might comment to a younger child "Sam, if you want my truck you have to ask nicely").

For young children, 'playing' with their peers is more likely to involve playing alongside them and friendships are generally based on who they see frequently and who is willing to share toys with them. Young children's friendships are more open to adult manipulation as we can more actively control who our children spend their time with. School age children are more likely to seek out others who have shared interests, can maintain friendships with children they don't necessarily see often, and understand that fights may not necessarily mean the end of a friendship.    

Playgroups, day care and playdates provide valuable opportunities for children to learn how to be assertive, how to be cooperative, and how to compromise. As parents in these settings, we need to make sure that we allow children to sort out their own minor squabbles relatively independently (of course if a child is being physical then by all means step in straight away).  Teach your child what they should say and do, show them, and then get them to practise.   For example, if your child has a tendency to let other children dominate and take advantage of them, then it would be useful to teach them how to assertively stand up for themselves and what words to use to be most effective (e.g. a simple, loud "NO, I don't like it when you do that").

Not all children can or should be leaders; we need to accept that our children might be more comfortable observing social interactions from a safe distance and gradually entering the play as they become more familiar with what is expected. Avoid labelling your child in front of others, for example saying "Oh Molly is shy", as this suggests to the child that there is nothing she can do about the situation. A more helpful way of explaining a child hanging back is "Molly will go and play when she feels comfortable". On hearing this the child knows that she can wait a bit before she joins in the specific activity.

Seeing your child isolated from their peers, or suddenly not in favour with a previous friendship group is particularly difficult for parents.   I'm not talking necessarily about bullying here (this is a more complex situation that I will deal with in a later article), but rather the ebb and flow of children's friendships. When this happens, it is useful to organise some play dates with other children to create a wider social network and to explain to your child that who we are friends with will change a lot as we go through life, and also try to take a step back and examine what might be causing the child's difficulties with friends and friendships. Sometimes there will be things that we can actively work on with our own children to help them be more successful in friendships (i.e. working on sharing, turn taking, making eye contact, developing specific game skills), sometimes it might be the other child or children that need assistance (which may mean a quiet chat to a parent or carer if they are receptive), and sometimes it might be time for the child to move on and make a new friend.

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It is also important to remember that friendship problems are often very short lived, so before charging in to sort out why Daisy doesn't want to be friends with Louise any more, you may want to wait and see if tomorrow it is all forgotten. However, when friendship problems are ongoing, causing distress, or turn into bullying you may need to take more drastic action (such as talking to the other parent, child care worker or teacher).

Reading stories about friendships and social skills can be a useful way to explain social interactions to young children. Your local library may even have a section of picture story books on friendships.

If you find that your child is regularly being excluded, is extremely distressed, and is not able to make changes themselves to sort out social problems then it may be a good idea to seek professional help. Social skills groups or social skills training specifically for children can be very useful in developing a child's confidence and competence in dealing with the social world.

Article written by Dr Emma Little, Child and Adolescent Psychologist, Stepping Stones Psychology Melbourne.

Discuss your child's behaviour in our Toddler & Kids forum. You can also seek support in our Challenging Behaviour forum.