We all know how important social life at school can be. We were kids once, too. From making new friends in kindergarten to navigating fickle social circles in middle school, forging and sustaining relationships is a huge part of growing up. Peers also play a significant role in kids’ development.
“The power of the relationship is crucial in building other components of learning,” explains Christina Kim, director of student life and social-emotional learning at The Willows Community School in Culver City. “School friendships are important because they promote social-emotional learning and collaboration skills.”
From learning to resolve conflicts to communication, compromise and building self-confidence, there’s a lot more to social life than play dates and Snapchat sessions. Early friendships give kids an opportunity to develop foundational social skills that they’ll use for the rest of their lives.
The Benefits of Friends
“Kids learn through their interactions with other people,” explains Dawn Kurtz, chief programs officer at Los Angeles Universal Preschool, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of early-learning programs. “They’re developing skills like the ability to identify and understand feelings, accurately identify how other people are feeling, and labeling those feelings.”
From the time kids enter kindergarten – or even before – and move from parallel play to more direct social interactions, they start to learn more about themselves through others. “When it comes to kindness, inclusion and empathy,” says Dena Scott, school psychologist at Mirman School in Bel-Air, “the only way that you can learn that is really if you’re interacting with another human being, and that’s super important.”
Developing empathy through friendships is an especially significant milestone for kids. “Empathetic children are more self-confident and secure,” Kim says. “They’re able to make better decisions for themselves without hurting others or seeking approval and acceptance from others. They’re better able to handle conflicts. And developing meaningful friendships that hopefully have a longer-lasting impact is really key.”
So, how can we, as parents, help support these crucial connections?
Parental support is especially important during times of transition, including starting kindergarten or moving into middle school. Facing a situation without familiar faces can create a tidal wave of fear and insecurity.
Reassurance is a good place for parents to start. No matter how old the child, simply reminding them how nervous they were to start preschool or elementary school (or whatever transition came before the current one) goes a long way, as does helping them remember how they successfully made new friends in the past.
Kim recommends focusing on open-ended questions such as, “What was it like when you first met your friend?” and “How did you end up becoming good friends?” You can also talk through or role-play different interactions your child may encounter.
Setting up play dates with kids from your child’s new class or new school is always a good idea. One-on-one situations are generally best for younger kids, and even older kids who are especially shy. Group play dates centered around common interests often work well for middle schoolers, because focusing on interests gives them a common ground to build upon.
Let middle schoolers take the lead in setting up these dates. “Stand back a bit,” says Scott, who suggests asking your child’s teacher about kids who might be a good match, then empowering your child to take a role in reaching out. Let your child be proactive about connecting rather than pushing them into it.
Once your child has managed to make new friends, conflicts and challenges inevitably come up as relationships (and kids) grow and change. Fortunately, there are many ways parents can help kids navigate the choppy waters of evolving relationships.
When kids are going through challenges with their peers, it’s crucial to listen and validate their feelings. “We encourage parents to be that listening ear, be that support and to be open to hearing what their child is going through,” says Scott.
Providing empathetic support when they need it will help you earn their trust, so they’ll feel comfortable coming to you when something comes up. “Keep an open line of communication and trust with our children so they can tell us things,” says Kim. “And let them know that we’re here to help them figure it out together, without judging.”
This is especially important – and challenging – as kids enter middle school. “For parents, it becomes a little tricky,” says Scott, “because instead of the kids going to them for the first line of approval or validation, they tend to go to their friends.”
If you’ve built trust early on, that will help, as will a more subtle approach. Kurtz says it is still important to inquire frequently about what is happening in your child’s social circle, but she adds a caution. “As they age, you obviously have to tread a little more lightly and ask different types of questions,” she says.
Kurtz also notes that it’s important to ask older kids whether they want advice or are just processing. “Understand what they’re trying to get out of it,” she says. “Are they just trying to be heard and tell you about an experience, or do they actually want you to provide some sort of insight or advice that they may or may not take?”
The quickest way to make your child clam up about their friends is to overreact to what they are telling you. “When the reactions are strong and a parent can’t be neutral and help the kid process, it shuts lines of communication,” says Kim. “Children often stop trusting or opening up to their parents when they realize their parents may or may not be able to handle what they say, or their reactions are so big.”
So do your best to remain calm and try to understand the big picture. Whatever you do, don’t call another child’s parent before you have all of the information. “Validate their experience and their feelings,” says Kim, “but hold off before reacting.” Your ultimate goal, she explains, is to equip your child with language and strategies to solve problems on their own.
When your child is in conflict with a friend, try hard to avoid the powerful impulse to take sides. “The best advice I can give to a parent is to try to present the other point of view,” says Elizabeth Desmarais, assistant head of school at St. James’ Episcopal School. “Ask ‘Why might this be happening?’ rather than becoming defensive because it’s your child and you want to protect them.”
Avoid making negative comments about anyone involved, as your remarks may be difficult to erase from your child’s memory. “Try to stay positive,” says Desmarais. “Behind the scenes, parents can have conversations with adults and break it apart, but with kids, it really should always be about presenting alternatives or strategies for dealing with it from a positive standpoint.”
It can be especially tricky dealing with tweens, girls in particular. It’s not uncommon for them to wrestle with overwhelming emotions one day, and decide that all is fine and forgiven the next day. The key is helping them through how they could have handled the situation differently, without really commenting on the individuals in particular. “It really can be fleeting,” says Kurtz. “It’s more important to help them through the dynamics of friendship, and the fluidity of it, rather than potentially making a mountain out of a molehill.”
Scott cautions against holding onto judgments about other kids. “Sometimes parents will hold onto a social interaction or exchange that happened with their child longer than the student does,” she says. “Children are always growing and evolving, they’re always learning. So it’s important to try to step back from holding that fixed belief.”
Don’t Try to Fix It
Solving our kids’ problems for them is probably every parent’s first instinct. Unfortunately, it also does them a great disservice. “There’s a lot of evidence that children are able to act on their own plan a little bit easier than when they’re acting out something that someone else has suggested,” says Kurtz. “It helps in terms of social development to really think through from a problem-solving perspective.”
Instead, try to provide your kids with the tools they need to solve their own problems. “We want to allow kids to be kids, to learn from their mistakes,” says Scott. “We want to give them tools to be able to communicate, or take space if they need it.”
It’s also important that parents don’t get in the way of any resolution the kids might be able to create on their own. “Because ultimately that’s what we all want,” says Scott, “some type of healthy resolution.”
If that isn’t happening, instead of taking over, partner up and guide your child with open-ended questions, and empower them with language and strategies. “Partner with the child to think of solutions together,” says Kim, “so that the child can take some ownership of that problem-solving process.” This boosts their confidence, and sets them up for success in the future, making them feel capable of facing new challenges on their own.
Helping our kids navigate their friendships is as much about keeping ourselves in check and putting our own agendas aside as it is about providing them with the support and space they need to thrive. And while we’re helping them, perhaps we can even incorporate some of this sage advice into our own complicated adult relationships.
Melissa Gage has been a Los Angeles-based freelance writer for more than 15 years, and is the mother of one son.