I get a lot of questions from parents of elementary aged children about what normal childhood friendships look like. Whether you see your child making bad friendships, getting bullied by friends, or consistently having fights with friends, it’s hard to know when and how to intervene as the parent.
Here are three strategies to avoid and three to employ:
- Tell your child to stop hanging out with a bully or bad friend. Why? If it was that easy, they’d do it already. There’s something about that particular person that keeps your child coming back. It is important to figure out why your child can’t get away from the bad relationship and address that as the core issue. Friends who bully are usually hot and cold- one day your child is this kid’s best friend and everything is great, then suddenly everything changes. It’s almost like gambling.
- Jump in immediately to fix the situation. Let your child come up with the ideas about what to do with a bad friend or a nasty fight. Use your judgment to help guide them toward effective, appropriate solutions, but the child should be in the driver’s seat when it comes to the solution. Why? Because you’re not going to be there at school or on the playground with your child. If they come up with the solution, they’re more likely to try it out.
- Ask the teacher to monitor the situation. Teachers have a job to do aside from reporting on individual students’ behavior. If something big happens that you need to know about, the teacher will probably tell you.
- Point out aspects of good and bad friendships whenever they come up. If your child shares a story about how Ron shared his sandwich with someone whose lunch fell in a puddle, make a big deal about how Ron was a good friend by showing kindness and sharing. And when your child tells you about how Sarah wouldn’t include Tiffany in tag at recess, it’s enough for you to comment that Sarah wasn’t being a good friend and how excluding people is unkind. You can also do this as you’re watching TV with your kids. It’s actually a bit easier with TV because the simple storylines almost always end with good outcomes for good behavior and negative consequences for bad behavior.
- Model good relationships. When you have a fight with your children, how do you repair the relationship? When Mom and Dad are mad, how do they treat each other? The way you act is what the child sees. If you have turbulent, dramatic relationships with your friends and spouse, your child is more likely to see that type of relationship as normal and even positive.
- Listen well. Without interrupting. Without offering your opinion. If your child feels truly heard, they’re more likely to talk to you. Playground drama doesn’t seem like critical information, but it opens the door for your child to express their thoughts and feelings. Listening without judgment shows your child that you can handle their difficult situations. And when you demonstrate that you can hear elementary problems without reacting, they’re more likely to confide in you as a teen.
Kids choose to stay with bad friends for a few reasons.
First is the helper personality. This child feels like it’s their duty to monitor and control the behavior of their classmates. If this is your child, work with them to understand boundaries. They need to know that there are things outside of their control and that they are not responsible for other kids’ behavior. They need to let go.
Second is the victim mentality. This child doesn’t think they deserve to have good friends, or perhaps they think that this is how real friends act. If this is your child, boost their sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy (no, this won’t spoil them). Some of these kids may not be able to find friends in their peer group because of their reputation as someone who can be easily bullied. It may help to get them involved in extracurricular activities with a different group of kids.
Third is the imitation factor. Even if you’re modeling healthy relationships, the media has a major influence on what kids (and adults) consider normal. If your child’s fights with friends seem like something out of daytime television, make sure you know what they’re watching, playing, and reading. You don’t have to get rid of the TV or the tablet, but make sure to have a conversation about how the characters in your favorite show are just characters. The things they do are funny and exaggerated, but they’re not real. Follow up with a discussion of how you (or another real person) would handle the situation.