Healthy Friendships Expand a Child’s World


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Friendships allow children to explore a world separate from their parents. Poet and clergyman George Herbert once said: “The best mirror is an old friend.” Friendships help shape our identity and form opinions about ourselves and our environment, and one of the most important skills we learn as human beings is how to navigate within relationships.

According to area experts, children typically seek friendships that mimic relationships within their own family. Children learn relationship skills by observing how their parents get along with each other and with them, says Donald Rosenblitt, a child psychiatrist, clinical director and founder of the Lucy Daniels Center in Cary.

“One thing parents can keep in mind is that you help children in the middle years by doing a lot of preparation prior to those ages,” Rosenblitt says. “It’s important to instill strong values and help kids think through friendships and make choices early in life. These children, in all likelihood, will carry those values through to the next stage when they have to do this on their own.”

What is a healthy friendship?

Talk with children of all ages about the characteristics of healthy friendships and the importance of choosing friends carefully. According to Dr. Colleen Hamilton, clinical psychologist at Lepage Associates in Durham, a good friendship may include the following:
- Common interests.
- Treating friends the way you want to be treated.
- Paying attention when friends are talking.
- Keeping a friend’s confidences.
- Sharing with friends.
- Truthfulness.
- Sticking up for a friend.
- Taking turns with a friend.

Healthy friendships are reciprocal and mutual. In a healthy relationship, a child is neither totally dominant nor totally passive and enjoys a variety of activities with a friend.

“What you want to see is that the children don’t seem overly sensitive or overly dependant, but have the friendship as a source of pleasure and are using this relationship to expand their world,” Rosenblitt says.

Signs a child is developing healthy friendships include:
- A child takes pleasure and pride in friendships.
- Despite some disagreements, the overall experience is positive.
- A child develops preferences for particular children.

As a child ages, the child needs less adult intervention and assistance in friendships. See the resource information below for guidance to help children manage relationships.

Setting the stage

“The only way to have a friend is to be one,” the saying goes, and that holds true for every generation. Provide children the opportunity to interact with others.

Hamilton says parents can be aware of a child’s peers and observe a child’s interaction with others in a social setting. “Ongoing monitoring of the child’s choices and behaviors can serve as guidelines for future discussions regarding healthy friendships,” she says. “Topics to focus on [when talking with children] include friendliness, ability to share and responsiveness to others feelings.”

Parents can comment on specific behaviors and choices of a child and a child’s peers during discussions of daily events, Hamilton adds. “In doing this, the parent guides the child in developing standards for behavior,” she says. “This ability to assess the behavior of others allows the child to make healthy decisions when choosing friends without the parent telling the child who they can and cannot be friends with.”

Young children are learning how to interact with others

Preschoolers require more monitoring than children of other ages. Young children are learning to share and to take turns, which require children to be patient and think about the needs of others, often for the first time

Preschool children learn to resolve differences with their peers by navigating the rough spots in relationships, sometimes with the help of adults. At this age, children begin to put themselves in another person’s shoes while also considering their own needs and feelings. Finding this balance between our own needs and the needs of others is a constant consideration in relationships.

“If children can recognize another’s perspective, but give due weight to their own, they will be able to handle any situation,” Rosenblitt says.

At this age, it is the parent’s responsibility to remove a child from harmful or damaging relationships.

Elementary school children explore through friendships

School-age children often need much less intervention related to peer interactions. Unless a child is unable to handle a situation, parents can allow children to use these years to explore the world with their peers.

If a relationship is undesirable, parents can be straightforward with a child and coach the child to consider making some changes in the relationship. Forbidding relationships from this age forward is a last resort for when a child is in danger or involved in illegal activities.

Middle school children need guidance about acceptable behaviors

Parents have somewhat less control over friend choices when children reach the teen years, so they should establish clear rules and boundaries regarding appropriate behavior, according to Hamilton.

“Have early and frequent conversations with your child regarding school expectations, treatment of others, sexual activity and substance use,” Hamilton says. “Make your position clear and assist your child in developing coping skills if faced with these issues, so that they are confident in their ability to make good choices.”

She suggests rehearsing ways children can say “no” when faced with negative peer pressure.

Continue to spend time with your child by engaging in activities your teen enjoys.

From ages 12 to 14, peer relationships take on an intense quality that will not occur previously or afterward. Friend selection is a common worry for parents of teens, particularly since many children often don’t ask for or want advice at this age. Parental interference can damage communication, so it’s wise to gauge how open a child is to suggestions.

“The more concerned you are about a friendship, the more likely you are to have to say something,” Rosenblitt says.

If children have solid values, they will not typically seek out friends whose value system is extremely different than their own.

“If they have been raised in an environment in which they have been respected and in which they have seen their parents be respectful, then they are likely to choose friends at the ages of 12 to 14 who are respectful of them, the environment and others,” Rosenblitt says.

High school students need to share their social plans

High school is a time when parents are faced with all the pros and cons of a child with a full social life that may include dating. It’s important for parents to be authoritative when peer groups may include risks of substance abuse, violence or delinquent behavior.

Be familiar with a child’s friends and activities. Make it a point to know: Where they are going. With whom they are going. Who is transporting them. When they will be home. Parents should also establish a consequence for not following the agreed-on plan.

“One of the most important aspects for parents is striking the balance between guiding your child and letting them make their own decisions,” says Teresa Greco, a licensed clinical social worker at the Lucy Daniels Center.

Accepting a child’s desire to test different peers is a necessary part of parenting.

Model healthy friendships

Being invested in your own healthy relationships is among the best ways to teach children about relationships. Your child learns about healthy friendships by monitoring your friendships and experiencing healthy relationships within the family.

“One of the big things is modeling the behavior you want to see,” says Lisa Phillips of Cary, mother of two girls. “Treat your child the way you would want your child to treat others,” she says.

Phillips enjoys hosting social activities at her home. “That way I can see the interactions between the children, and after the fact sometimes I can suggest ways the children might have handled various social situations,” she says.

Parents can take many steps to give a child the skills to make friends and choose friends wisely.

“Always remember that a child’s first and strongest model of a good relationship is their own relationship with their parents,” Hamilton says. Show continued love and concern for your child and maintain a level of trust and respect, she adds. “These aspects of the parent-child relationship will continue to have a powerful influence over the child and the choices they make,” Hamilton says.

Carol McGarrahan is a Triangle-based health writer.

Help Children Have Positive Friendships

Parents can help children build positive friendships with the following suggestions for various age groups:

Preschool
-Discuss the characteristics of healthy friendships.
-Stress the importance of choosing friends wisely.
-Allow uninterrupted play unless an altercation occurs.

Elementary School
-Discuss desirable qualities in a friend.
-Discuss daily peer interactions. If a child complains a friend is consistently “mean” to them, a parent might say: “It’s certainly up to you if you want them as a friend, but I wouldn’t like it if a friend did that to me.”
-Encourage children to resolve disagreements in an otherwise healthy friendship.
-Explain that it is OK to terminate a friendship without being unkind. A child can say: “I would like to be friends with you if you can treat me better, but I don’t really want to be your friend otherwise.”

Middle School
-Listen.
-Ask questions like: “Do you think that was kind?” and “What would be the best way to handle that?”
-Explain that it is OK not to be friends as long as you are not unkind.

High School
-Provide limited comments on friend choices, such as: “Well, I don’t really know whether they share the same interests you do.”
-Ask the desired goals of a particular friendship.
-Provide structure like curfews and methods of contact. At all ages, accept a child’s need to explore while prohibiting friendships that are harmful or involve illegal activities.

Reasons for terminating a friendship:
-A child is being mistreated.
-A child is mistreating another.
-Another child is a poor model or exposes a child to undesirable activities.
-Friendships are restrictive or reinforce unhealthy habits.
-Children are consistently involved with much younger children who do not advance growth.

Source: Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood

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