Teaching the rules of friendship

What do parents worry about most when it comes to their children’s friendships? Bullying, peer pressure and being left out, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph. D., a clinical psychologist in Princeton, New Jersey, and co-author of The Unwritten Rules of Friendship (Little, Brown) and Smart Parenting for Smart Kids (Jossey-Bass/Wiley).

Though every child has different social strengths and struggles, there are some tips that can help pave the way to new friendships. Dr. Kennedy-Moore, a mother of four kids, ages 19, 17, 13, and 11, shares her advice with SheKnows below.

How can parents help their kids make new friends?

Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore: Kids make friends by doing things together. After school activities can help pave the way for friendships. So can one-on-one play dates. Also, be sure your child knows how to join group activities by first observing what the other children are doing and then sliding into the action without interrupting it. This could mean retrieving a ball after a wild throw for some kids playing catch, standing in line to enter a four-square game or bringing additional supplies to contribute to a building project.

However, we can't make someone like us. If your child's friendly gestures keep getting rejected by a particular child, it's probably a good idea to move on and focus efforts on someone else who is more open to friendship.


What can parents say and do for a child who is dumped by friends?

Dr. Kennedy-Moore: Being rejected by a friend is horribly painful for children (and everyone else). When this happens, our children need love and comfort. Wrapping their feelings up in words (“It hurt your feelings when he…”) can make those feelings seem more understandable and more manageable. It also lets your child know that you understand. Spending extra, undemanding time together can also be soothing.

"When children are feeling raw, criticism from a parent feels like another rejection"

Although it might be tempting to offer pointers or repeat warnings (“I told you the other kids wouldn't like it if you…”), bite your tongue. When children are feeling raw, criticism from a parent feels like another rejection. When your child is feeling steadier, you can help your child come up with a plan for what happens next. This could involve an apology, forgiveness, or reaching out to other potential friends.

Keep in mind that children's feelings and relationships often change quickly. Today, your son may tell you that he hates Joe's guts, but next week, he and Joe might be best friends. Children often experiment with social power, and their empathy isn't fully developed. This combination can lead to mean behavior stemming from thoughtlessness rather than true dislike.

Building bonds

What are some helpful tips every parent should teach their child about making and keeping friends?

Dr. Kennedy-Moore: Kindness is the key to friendship. A lot of children have what I call the magnet theory of friendship. They believe that if they have to be so amazing and impressive, they’ll magically draw friends to them, the way a magnet attracts steel. But really, what they need to focus on is reaching out and making the other person feel good when they're together. Little gestures, such as smiling at someone, offering a compliment or sharing a pencil can communicate, "I like you!" and are often the beginning of a friendship.

The Unwritten Rules of Friendship tips

  • When someone says "Stop," stop
  • Joining a group means blending in without interrupting the action or the conversation
  • If you push people into doing something, they will resent you, even if you are right
  • New relationships won't survive conflict
  • You can't join a group by disagreeing — you have to look for common ground

Hey moms

What kind of advice do you give your kids when it comes to friends? Share your thoughts and stories in Comments below.

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Tags: making friends

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