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“I don’t want to go to school. The other kids are being mean to me.”
“Morgan isn’t my friend anymore.”
“What if the kids laugh at my hair again like they did yesterday?”
“Christopher said I’m weird.”
For parents, it’s heartbreaking to hear statements like these from our children. We would all like to rush in and defend them from every hurt and rejection. Instead, we can help them manage difficult feelings, cope with the complexities of relationships, and grow from these experiences.
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Here are some helpful tips for guiding your child through common friendship challenges like bossiness, exclusion, and disagreements. In the process, your child will learn valuable lifelong skills that include empathy, assertiveness, and conflict resolution.
First, Teach What it Means to Be a Good Friend
Teach children values they should look for in others and strive to embody in their own relationships.
With good friends, they can be themselves. True friends will embrace them for who they really are, will be honest, and won’t pressure them to do anything that makes them uncomfortable. In healthy friendships, children support friendships with other peers and celebrate one another’s successes.
- Good friends greet each other, take turns, say please and thank you, etc. Remember to model the behaviors and social skills you would like to see. It is also helpful to teach these skills in context. As your children play together (or, for an only child, as your child plays with a friend you’ve invited over), observe your child’s interactions. When needed, step in to remind your child of polite and respectful behavior.
- Good friends have empathy. Children need to understand that others may think and feel differently than they do, and that’s OK. Perspective-taking is a new skill for young children, and it’s one that you can help your child develop. Simple ways to practice empathy include pointing out the emotions of others (e.g., “See his face? He’s sad because he was hoping to have a turn with the blocks”), discussing the emotions of characters in stories, and talking about your own feelings.
The 5-Day Friendship Challenge in our digital Challenges Kit also nurtures positive friendships with fun activities that teach kindness, empathy, inclusivity, and the qualities of a good friendship.
Help Them Overcome These 3 Common Friendship Challenges
The following are challenges children regularly face as they navigate friendships with others and tips on how to help your child manage these difficult situations.
Bossiness is a frequent issue in childhood friendships, especially with younger children. This is partly because children are still learning to express their wants and needs.
If your child is being bossy…
- Remind them to ask for what they want respectfully, rather than demanding it. Explain that although they can ask people for something, people have the right to say no. In the same way, she has the right to say no to others.
- Give them the words to say instead. Simply saying, “Be nice” is not specific enough to be helpful to young children. For instance, if your child says, “I want the orange ball! You play with the red ball!” tell her, “Instead, say, ‘I would like to play with the orange ball. Will you play with the red ball?’” The more you can provide children with respectful phrasing in context, the more they’ll learn important social-emotional skills.
- Provide your child with choices. Sometimes children who are bossy are simply trying to have some degree of control over their lives. For younger children, offer only two choices to keep it simple. For older children, you may offer 3-5 choices. For instance, you might ask your child whether she would like to wear her blue shirt or her pink shirt to school. Would she like pancakes or waffles? Even if the choices are small, giving your child more autonomy may reduce the urge to boss others around.
- Recognize and encourage the improvement as your child begins using manners and making requests more politely (e.g., “You did it! You were kind and respectful.”).
If your child is being bossed around…
What if your child is the one being bossed around by others?
- Role-play. Practice scenarios in which a child is behaving bossily, then have your child practice responding politely, but assertively.
- Give them the words to say. For instance, you might practice saying, “I don’t want to play with the blocks right now. Maybe I will play with the blocks later.”
If the bossy child responds by insulting your child, have your child practice saying, “I don’t like it when you call me names. Please call me by name instead.” Assertiveness is a difficult skill even for adults, so children often need lots of practice.
Talk to your child about the importance of including others. Teach kindness and empathy. Encourage your child to talk to others who may not have many friends. Model kindness and acceptance of others in your daily life.
The Kindness & Community Kit will support you in developing your child’s ability to care for others and treat them with respect and kindness. You’ll find engaging printable worksheets, activities, posters, book and movie lists, and coloring sheets built to cultivate kindness in your child.
If your child is being excluded…
If your child is being excluded by others, your natural tendency is to rush in and protect them. You may want to say mean things about the other children, try to solve the problem for your child, or shield your child from the hurt and rejection she’s feeling. We all understand the natural human desire to be liked and accepted.
Still, we can’t save our children from these difficult experiences. Instead, we should teach them how to cope with and manage them. If the situation occurs again, your child will have the skills to handle it, whether you are there or not.
- When your child talks to you about being excluded by others, listen. Don’t rush in with solutions or anger toward the other children, and do not overreact. Simply listen and help your child process the emotions she is feeling.
- Instill confidence and the understanding that what others think about her does not define her or change who she is. In fact, what others think about her is shaped by their own life experiences, beliefs, and preferences. It has everything to do with them and nothing to do with her.
- Use analogies. With my students, I sometimes use the example of watching a movie. If a group of people watches a movie together, any movie, some will love it, and some will hate it. Some will think it’s OK. Yet everyone watched the same movie.
- Encourage your child to celebrate who she is, rather than fearing what others will think of her. The people who enjoy her genuine personality are the people she should call friends.
- Ask her to list her positive qualities. Remind her of the things that make her unique and wonderful.
- Make a friendship tree, listing all the friends she knows in all areas of life. Who are her friends at school, on her sports teams, in the neighborhood, at church, etc.? This activity can remind your child of all the positive friendships she does have, rather than focusing on a few children who exclude her.
- Cast a wide net. Involve your child in extracurricular activities and help her expand her social circle. If exclusion is happening in one place, like school, she’ll still have a positive support system on her soccer team or in her karate class.
- Talk with your child about how to cope with situations that make her feel left out or hurt. Different children may cope in different ways, so discuss and experiment with different strategies. It may help your child to take deep breaths, to write or draw, to silently recite positive affirmations, or to remember that she will spend time with her soccer friends after school. For some children, “coping cards” that list helpful strategies are a useful portable tool.
Print out the “When I Feel Frustrated” poster inside the Resilience Kit. This colorful poster offers many calming and relaxing activities that they can do when they feel frustrated or disappointed.
Unfortunately, exclusion and rejection are part of life. Although you can’t eliminate them from your child’s life entirely, you can provide her with strategies to navigate these experiences.
Friendships inevitably involve disagreements from time to time. It’s important to teach children how to handle these disagreements in a healthy manner. The following steps can help:
- Model peaceful conflict resolution. Demonstrate taking deep breaths to remain calm, using “I feel” statements rather than attacking statements, listening to both sides of an issue, and then trying to solve the problem and/or come to a compromise.
- Set clear rules against unhealthy behaviors like a door slamming, sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, and physical harm.
- When your child has disagreements, remind them of the peaceful conflict resolution strategies you use in your home. It’s okay to walk away and take a few deep breaths to collect yourself. When you’re ready, share your point of view using respectful language, such as, “I felt hurt when you laughed at me.”
Next, listen to the other person’s point of view without interrupting. Assume that the person is doing their best and did not do anything intentionally malicious. If necessary, make amends with a hug or a handshake and come up with a mutual resolution.
- Explain to your child that in a friendship, they shouldn’t be trying to “win” arguments. Instead, they should work together to find a solution that satisfies both people. And although it’s okay to feel sad or mad, and it’s okay to disagree, it is not okay to be disrespectful or cruel to others, and it is not okay for others to be disrespectful or cruel to them.
Seeing your child struggle with friendships doesn’t get easier, but these tools will give you positive, productive responses that allow your child to move forward with new coping strategies and friendship skills.