This is certainly a topic that is going to come up at some point in your child’s journey through life. Some children navigate friendships with ease and don’t often have much conflict. This can be due to their temperament or personality or they may be a child that likes one on one friendships and will migrate towards them. For other children, sometimes group dynamics can feel tricky, and friendships are one of the ways they work through big feelings and emotions.
There is no doubt that friendships, much like family dynamics teach children about empathy, compassion, negotiation, patience, and acceptance.
As parents, we all want to protect our children from the challenges that life presents – we don’t like to see our children struggle or navigate difficult situations. However, like most developmental experiences that our children have – there is wisdom in the uncomfortable places and jumping in to fix or change it for our child, sometimes can do more harm than good.
It can be really difficult when your child comes home and shares what happened in their day. I always love to remind parents that we are often hearing one version of the story and it can be good to stay open and curious as to what has happened. Checking in with the adults/ teachers who may have witnessed the situation or heard both sides of the story is often a great first step so you have all the information.
When it comes to friendships, one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to teach them the skills to navigate the ruptures that may happen.
What may this look like?
1. Listen.. and listen more
As humans, we all have a deep desire to be heard. When we feel seen and heard we can shift from feeling swamped with what’s going on into a state of possibility. We all know how much better it feels when we talk through our worries. As you are listening to what has unfolded – try to refrain from offering advice or getting into what they should do next.
Listening with empathy and understanding often looks like not saying much, but offering some words like “ that sounds really hard, tell me more, what else is bothering you?”
When we create space for children to vent and let out all the parts that feel hard, they are then more open to working through a solution. Sometimes children just need to vent about the hard parts and they dont need any help or further support – sometimes just speaking is all they need and then they can move forward or see what happens the next day.
2. Roleplay some ideas
After your child has finished expressing what has happened, you could ask them – do you want some ideas or help or did you want me to just listen? If the answer is – I want you to just listen – please dont offer any advice. I know it is so hard to not jump in and fix what is going on, but we need to empower our children to develop the skills to navigate tricky experiences. Perhaps the next day you might check in again about what happened with their friend and again you may listen and offer support if needed.
If your child does ask for help or doesn’t know what to do and wants some assistance, then role-playing some ideas around what they could do next time can be helpful.
Questions like, “What could you say if that happens again?”
3. Can we look behind the behavior?
Often children act out in ways to protect themselves. If they feel threatened they may criticize someone else or put structures in place to protect what they feel may be taken or lost. This can often play out in friendships and sometimes the insecurities a child is feeling may be portrayed by controlling friendships or being mean to another child.
If possible, after listening – see if you can dig a bit deeper as to what the fears may be around the friendship or behavior that is happening.
Is your child needing more control in their life and therefore they are playing that out in friendships? Could you play some more power reversal games or give them some more choice, autonomy, or power at home? Are they having trouble speaking their truth or their needs? Do they struggle with saying Yes or No?
Perhaps you can practice big Yes’s and No’s with fun and laughter with some role play or encourage them to use a big voice or be clear around what they want to express, or ask for help from the team so the guides can help them speak what they need to a friend.
It can also be helpful after we have listened to their worries and complaints to help our children see what may be happening for the other child. This can be a wonderful way to model compassion and empathy and help children understand that there are often worries, thoughts, and fears that drive behavior.
4. What is mine to own as a parent?
As with all things that our children experience, it can be easy to want to jump in and fix what happening. It can also be very common to feel triggered by what is playing out. Many of us have had friendship issues in our lifetime ( especially as children ) so witnessing our children move through these places can feel confronting and challenging.
As with all parts of parenting, I strongly invite parents to speak to someone about what comes up for them. When we can own or heal parts of our past, we are less likely to be triggered when our children experience something similar and less likely to pass on our fear, worry, or stress to them.
Our job is to be a calm neutral place, an anchor to hold whatever storms they have to navigate. When we can create calm and safety for them to express how they feel, they can offload the hurts and worries and open themselves up to possibility and resolution.
5. What do we model?
Another little reminder is to make sure that what we are modeling is who we want our children to become. If we speak badly of others, criticize or judge and openly do this in front of our children, this is what they will learn is acceptable.
It is normal to have feelings about others, but there are respectful ways to discuss this and great opportunities to model to children about owning our own triggers and reactions.
We can model something like, “This person really brings up big feelings in me. Something about them makes me angry or frustrated or jealous (etc) and I am going to sit with my feelings to see what is stirring within me?”
We are all responsible for our feelings and reactions, so modeling this to our children can be such a gift so they can own their stories and meet others with compassion.
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