Friendship 101: Helping Our Kids Navigate the Ups and Downs of Childhood Companionship

She wore hi-top converse tennis shoes that were green on one side and red and white striped on the other.  And not just at Christmas time.  As a matter of fact, this 2nd grader named Bailey wore the same pair of tennis shoes every week for our counseling sessions.  Her mom brought her in to see me because Bailey was showing some signs of anxiety.  She was often teary at bedtime.  She had frequent stomachaches.  She would pepper her mom with questions every time she left the house, “Where are you going?  When will you be home?  Who are you going with?  What will you be doing?  WHEN will you be home?”  Her mom had rightfully become worried and wanted help.

As Bailey and I talked, I started to understand the root of her anxiety.  You may have guessed it:  friends.  Bailey didn’t feel like she fit in.  She described herself as “different”, and even “weird.”  The girls Bailey wanted to be friends with didn’t seem to want to be friends with her.  And Bailey was struggling.  Over the course of several months, Bailey started to believe that she had something to offer.  She began to see her creativity and uniqueness as a gift, rather than as a setback.  And, as so often happens, with her growing confidence, came some burgeoning friendships, as well.  By Mother’s Day, Bailey was in a different place.  She was given an assignment at school to needlepoint a sign for her mother.  Most of the other kids in her class made signs that said, “Happy Mother’s Day” and “I love you, Mom.” Bailey’s, however, reflected the theme of her journey thus far:  “Difference is beauty.”

I didn’t see Bailey for a couple of years.  Then, one day in late August, she appeared on my schedule.  Bailey walked into my office, sat down, and announced excitedly, “Today was the first day of 5th grade.”  “Well, tell me about it,” I said.  “How is 5th grade different than 4th?”  “Well, I don’t know what ‘s happened,” she said with all of her Bailey-ish precociousness.  “But all of a sudden, everything feels different.  It’s like my friends have become the most important part of my life.  We can’t wait to get to school to see each other and want to be at each other’s houses all of the time.”

That day, Bailey was excited.  The next time I saw her, however, she was as dejected as I’d ever seen her.  It turned out that those all-important friends had changed tables when went to sit with them in the cafeteria.  Thus flows the tide of childhood companionships.

You know, if you’re a parent.  They ride the crests of being chosen one day by a friend who invited them to play on the playground, and fall to the depths the next by that very same friend who doesn’t invite them to his birthday party.  And you are risen to the heights and taken down to the trenches right with them.  Watching your child navigate friendships is one of the most painful parts of being a parent.

What can you do?  How can you help?  It often feels like you and your child are at the mercy of whoever happens to be the schoolyard—or email—or instagram bully of the day.  If you were sitting in my counseling office, I would say that, yes, your child will be hurt—and probably hurt often at the hands of peers during his or her growing up.  But, I believe that you, as a parent, can employ some principles that can provide a ballast for your child—and yourself to navigate these turbulent waters of friendships.

For You:

  • Remember that you’ve already made it through your school-age years.  When your child is in pain, it will often trigger the very same pain you experienced when you were the same age.  Being left out or rejected can take us back so quickly that it can be hard to know if the pain we feel is really about our children—or about us.  Be aware of what’s stirring inside you, as Melissa Trevathan talks about so beautifully in our DVD Curriculum, Raising Boys and Girls.   You can be empathetic and compassion to their feelings, but remember they are most importantly that—their feelings.
  • Remember that children are learning what being a friend means.  They won’t immediately know what a kind response looks like, how to be inclusive, or what it means to forgive.  As a parent, you are the most important teacher of these principles.  You teach them, first, in what they see in you relationally.  Model the characteristics you hope to see in them.  Practice forgiveness—with your spouse, your peers, and even your child.  Model gratitude.  Speak to others with kindness.  Let them see that you value relationships, both inside and outside of your family.
  • Give them opportunities to take another’s perspective.  Empathy will not necessarily come naturally to your child, either.  Help them learn to see another’s perspective.  If your child pulls your dog’s hair, ask him how he think the dog felt.  If you see a homeless person on the street, ask her what she thinks it might feel like to be that person.  What does it feel like to be different characters in movies or on tv shows?  If a friend of your child’s is going through something difficult, ask questions to help her see what life might feel like from her friend’s perspective.
  • Don’t be more easily offended than they are.  Your child will come home in tears one day from school because a particular friend has hurt her feelings.  And then, two days later, will want to invite that very same friend over to spend the night.  Childhood friendships often work this way.  Again, they are learning.  You can ask questions about what it means to be a good friend, and what would she or he like to do differently net time.  But, even the friends that will go on to be lifelong friends will hurt each other from time to time.  If you think back on your childhood friendships, you might remember a little more of how it feels.
  • Seek out and be open to feedback from other adults in your child’s life.  Other adults will see how your son or daughter interacts differently than you will.  They will often be at their best—or kindest in front of you (although not always to you).  His teacher may see him say hurtful things to other boys.  Her coach may tell you that part of why she doesn’t feel included is that she stays on the outside of the group.  A friend’s mom may call and say that your daughter has hurt her daughter’s feelings.  These adults’ voices are vital to a true understanding of the social life of your child.  Ask their opinions, and be willing to hear them, even if it’s not the version you were hoping for.
  • Hold your child accountable.  If you catch your child bullying or hurting another, stop him.  Explain to him what is concerning about his behavior and give consequences, if appropriate.   
  • Value your child’s friendships.  Make your home a kid-friendly place.  Invite other children over, individually and in groups.  Offer to help with field trips and parties.  Coach his basketball team or volunteer with her girl scout troop.  As Bailey said, “friendships will be the very most important thing” in his or her life, at times, during his growing up.  As you get to know and value his friends, you also value him.

From kindergarten through his senior year, your child will be learning who he is and how that person connects to the world around him.  Because of your role as a parent, you are his most important teacher.  Tell him the truth in love.  Because of your unconditional love, you can speak potentially hard truths to him that no one else can.  And because of that same love, you can comfort her in a way that no one else can when others have hurt her.  Ask her about her friends.  Play a game of pick-up with his buddies.  Drive carpool and invite them over.  Listen to the way they talk to each other.  And then just listen to your child.  In the way you listen to your child and love the other children in his life, you will enhance not only his friendships to others, but also strengthen a friendship that the two of you will share for a lifetime.

Side Bar:  Sticks and Stones

Your child wants to know that he matters.  She wants to know that she has impact.  Especially on the very friends we’re talking about in this article.  And there will be times, that he or she will try to impact those friends negatively.  He will call a boy in his class a name.  She will write a note that is hurtful.  Any time you are made aware of your son or daughter impacting another in a hurtful way, they need your input.  He will not understand the impact—actually, the hurt his words can contain.  It will be up to you to help him learn—and enforce these ideas.  

Often, she’ll try the words out at home first.  She’ll call her sister “fat.”  He’ll call his brother “stupid.”  As a family, you can have a list of words that are not included in the life of your family.  You can call them Sticks and Stone Words, Red Light Words or Go Straight to Jail words—or whatever that’s clever that you can come up with to set them apart.  Have your child help you come up with the list.  Stupid, fat, liar, hate, retarded, gay, any “name” should be included.  And you can even, together, come up with an immediate consequence when one is spoken—by anyone in your home.

Sissy Goff, M.Ed., LPC-MHSP is a counselor, speaker, and author of five books including Intentional Parenting, as well as the DVD curriculum, Raising Boys and Girls:  The Art of Understanding their Differences.