How to Help School Age Children Navigate Friendships

School aged children friendships

Remember your child's first play dates as a toddler or preschooler? You chose the friends, the time, the venue, and the activity. You probably were well-acquainted with the other child's parents and felt completely comfortable.

Welcome to elementary school, a time when friendships become more important to children, but parents often feel less in control. The elementary school years are a period of social learning as children—and parents—navigate increasing independence and more complex relationships. Help your school age child transition successfully by staying connected, teaching communication skills, and setting safe boundaries.

Getting the Scoop on Your Child's Friends

Your child happily tells you what he ate for lunch or what he learned in math, but when it comes to his friends, mums the word. Children's play time is important for development, but they are inhabiting a world of their own making, one in which adults are tolerated, rather than invited to share. It's normal for children to want a measure of privacy with their friends.

On the other hand, it's important for parents to know their children's friends and it's important for children to feel comfortable sharing concerns with their parents. To help establish open communication, make your house one where children want to be. Keep the snack cupboard stocked and offer plenty of fun activities. Is there a place where children can make messes or run freely? It takes extra work – and patience – but having the "hangout" house is one of the best ways to stay connected with your child and his friends.

Ask your children about their friends, but maintain a casual, friendly approach. No interrogations. Instead, create conversations with your child by using open-ended questions, i.e., "What did you play at recess?" or "What do you like most about Riley?"

Navigating Friendship Conflicts

Even best friends don't agree on everything. Sooner or later, your child will probably face conflict. How can you help your child work through disagreements? First, model how to resolve conflict peacefully. Teach children good manners and positive behavior, while setting clear rules for types of negative behavior, such as physical harm, name calling, sarcasm, ridicule, yelling, or slamming doors. Demonstrate how to use language and listening to settle disputes. Here are some tips you can tell your child to teach them conflict resolution:

  1. Calm down; take a few deep breaths, walk away from the situation, or talk to a grown-up until you can think clearly.
  2. Share your point of view, using respectful language, i.e., "I felt mad when you laughed at me."
  3. Listen to the other person's perspective. Assume positive intent; in other words, assume that your friend probably didn't mean to make you mad.
  4. Make amends if necessary. This might include saying sorry, writing a note, or fixing something that's been broken.
  5. Come up with a solution you can both agree on.

If your child seems to have frequent fights with a specific friend, investigate to find out why. Children tend to have more conflicts when they're bored or when they spend a lot of time together. Try structuring activities and limiting time together. Groups of three children also seem to invite conflict because one child is often left out. Groups of two or four usually work better.

Setting Boundaries for Your Children and Their Friends

Here's a tricky problem: how do you handle the issue of differing values and expectations from the families of your child's friends? As your child grows through the elementary years (and even more so in middle school and high school), you'll find that families have different priorities and values. What's okay in one family might not be okay in another. Talk with your child early and often about your family's rules around topics such as safe social media use, swearing, and expectations for how your family talks to and treats each other. Your child may wonder why her friend has a cell phone or can watch certain movies that she can't. Stick to your guns; just be sure to explain your rules and reasons clearly, yet with empathy.

Talk with your child about what to do if she encounters an uncomfortable or unsafe situation. For example, what should your child do if a friend dares her to do something dangerous, like jumping off something high? Tell your child that it's okay to leave a friend's house at any time. Children often worry about offending peers. Tell your child to simply say, "I'm not feeling good." This statement is honest, but kind.

School age children are capable of having deep, rewarding friendships, yet they are still learning the rules of social interaction and communication. Some children seem to learn these rules intuitively; others can benefit from your direct teaching. Stay involved. The experiences your child has now pave the way for satisfying friendships in the future.

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