by Dr. Lisa Lenhart, Ph.D.; Child Psychologist
Navigating the complexities of social relationships has always been difficult, but never more so than in today’s more complicated society in which families often move, children are involved in multiple activities, and free time is at a premium. Children who have a harder time developing friendships are at risk for anxiety, depression, and acting out behaviors.
In contrast, children who have learned the art of making and keeping friends tend to do better in school, feel better about themselves, and are better able to weather negative experiences. Thus, the ability to develop friendships with peers is related to resiliency. For younger children, one of the skills that facilitates the development of friends is the capacity to join in a group of children who are engaged in play; for older children, this skills translates more into being able to become involved in conversations that are taking place between peers. A key component to being able to do this is to size up the situation (what game are they playing? What topic is being discussed?) in order to most easily be able to join in the ongoing interaction.
Another important skill is the ability to engage in give and take in relationships; rather than always going along with others or always insisting that things be done their way, children who are successful at making friends can switch between these two general approaches to peers. Conflict is something many of us avoid. However, in close relationships, conflict is inevitable and an important skill in friendship maintenance is conflict resolution. Being able to resolve disputes, minor or otherwise is also an important skill for all areas of life; talking with your child about situations that were difficult to resolve and problem solving various ways the conflict could have been handled will provide your child with greater flexibility in future interactions, with friends but also with co-workers and employers. Having empathy and understanding another person’s perspective allows children to respond most kindly and supportively to their friends.
When a child feels heard and understood, they will want to maintain a relationship with the person who understands them; helping your child to communicate this type of understanding will also support the maintenance of friendships. Some children develop all of these skills more automatically without much guidance other than observing the ways other people approach interactions; other children, however, need a bit more guidance in these different areas. Having open discussions with your child and friendships, conflict resolution, and relationships in general will allow you to guide your child into becoming a person who can successfully navigate relationships with others.