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. 

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 to Know Your Child's Friends 

Your child happily tells you what they ate for lunch or learned in math, but when it comes to friends, they may not say as much.  

While it is normal for children to want a measure of privacy with their friends, it is important for parents to know their children’s friends and for children to feel comfortable sharing concerns with their parents.  Setting the stage for our children to feel comfortable enough with us to share openly and honestly requires some work—there must be a foundation of trust. One way to show interest in your child’s friendship, while giving your child space, is to ask your child about their friends with a casual, friendly approach.  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, and though your child may have found their person, it won’t come without some challenges.  How can you help your child work through disagreements? 

First, model how to resolve conflict peacefully.  Teach your child kindness and empathy skills while setting clear boundaries for behaviors 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. Regulate; take a few deep breaths, walk away from the situation, or talk to a grown-up until you can think clearly. Sometimes all we need is a moment away to be able to reflect more earnestly.
  2. Share your point of view, using respectful language i.e., “I felt mad when you laughed at me.” 
  3. Listen to the other’s 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.  When feeling hurt or upset, this self-reflection can be difficult.  Help your child with the notion that when we look at what we might have done to create a situation, we are then able to change our part if we want to.
  5. Come up with a solution you can both agree on. 

Setting Boundaries for Your Children and Their Friends

As your child grows through the elementary years, 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 about what to do if they encounter an uncomfortable or unsafe situation, not only with a friend, but any other adults that may be present.  For example, what should your child do if a friend dares them 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. Some families even develop a code word or phrase that means “no questions asked, I’ll be right there to get you.”

School-age children can have 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.  Try to remain judgement, guilt and shame-free; holding space for your child, and all of their emotions. Knowing that they have you in their corner to be an observer, listener, coach, and cheerleader will give your children the confidence in knowing they can navigate life’s tricky challenges in productive ways. The experiences your child has now pave the way for satisfying friendships in the future.


Bright Horizons
About the Author
Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands
School aged children friendships