I often challenge my kids when they say that someone is popular at school. I don’t like that word. I didn’t like that word in high school either. My experience in school was that I wanted to be kind to everyone, and I wanted to have a few close friends to make me feel like I belonged somewhere. I learned at a young age that being kind was a good thing.
My own high school experience was that most of my middle school friends lived in the boundaries that led to them all going to a different high school. I felt like I was starting high school with no friends, and I found it to be very stressful. As a much more confident 46 year old woman, I would probably look at it as a new challenge for me. As a 14 year old teenager, I was not confident and I was very upset to go start high school with no friends. I cried for at least three months and never wanted to go to school. My parents were wonderful and listened and supported me through it all. My mom talked to the guidance counselor frequently who worked with me. My teachers were so nice and supportive. My dad drove me to school every day saying things like, “You are going to school to learn.” I always laughed at him because that was not my main focus in school. I noticed all the cute boys, and I wanted friends.
I joined the swim team as a diver but that didn’t work at all to make friends. I trained to be a diver pretty much by myself. I learned awesome dives, but I wasn’t with a team, and I wasn’t making friends.
I did find a couple friends from elementary school who had gone to a different middle school. My friend Jen dragged me to cheerleading tryouts. My heart was so sad because she didn’t make the team and I did. I had gymnastics, and dance training to help me make the team. Jen was wonderful and encouraged me to take the spot. It is all because of her that I found my place and my friends. I quickly became friends with all the cheerleaders and absolutely loved it. I have best friends for 32 years because of cheerleading.
Let’s move to my own children and observations as a social worker from all my experiences. All my social work training and experience, along with my own childhood experience, helps me to parent my children. All three of my children are so different and have very different social stressors.
I want to start with social stress when your children have friends. I have taught my children that quarters are more important than pennies. I want all of them to have a few good friends. That is what it’s all about. Having a few good friends to spend your time with. However, we also don’t want them to put all their eggs in one basket. That is so much easier said than done. I see that my girls usually want to spend time with one particular friend. I really encourage them to spread the wealth and spend time with other friends. If they put all their eggs in one basket and things go sour, they won’t have that one egg to hang out with anymore. That can be so stressful for a child.
I also pay close attention to what kind of influence friends have on my kids. Ideally, we want our kids to be friends with kids who are a good influence. One of my daughter’s friends told her to do something anyway that I told her she couldn’t do. That doesn’t make me happy to hear. I don’t expect their friends to be perfect, but I do keep my eyes and ears open. I also want to make sure my child and their friends are being nice to others and including others. I told my daughter that she can have a lot of best friends. I encourage her to talk to everyone and be nice to everyone. I have had talks with my daughters about what it means to be inclusive and exclusive. Don’t assume that your kids are being included and that they are being inclusive. I think these are good conversations to have with our kids. I also remember that they are going to model me. They see me spend time with lots of different friends and they see that I really think it’s important to be nice to people.
There are going to be social stressors whether your children have a lot of friends, a few friends or not many friends at all. Conflict in friendship is a very normal thing. Friends have conflicts. I normalize it for my kids and encourage them to use their problem solving skills. How do they think they should handle it? What do they think they should say? My friend texted me that once her kids hit middle school she doesn’t get involved anymore. I don’t have a hard and fast rule with that. I always encourage my kids to handle things themselves. However, sometimes they don’t know what to say and they need our guidance.
Role playing is a great tool that I use with my kids. “When your friend says X, what are you going to say?” I have also gotten phone calls from parents and had to make phone calls. The goal is to equip them with enough skills to be able to manage conflicts effectively on their own. They are going to make mistakes, and they are going to stumble. Just be behind them to support them through it all. The steady force in my life was the family that I went home to every day after school and activities. The fact that your children have you to go home to every day is so important.
Let’s shift to the child who doesn’t have a lot of friends. I hope that your child has at least one friend! I know I have had to challenge myself in the friend department with my children. Just because I wanted, and still want a lot of friends doesn’t mean that is what my children want. Every child’s needs are different, but every child needs a friend. If your child doesn’t have any friends, or needs more friends, step one is to sign them up for clubs, sports, and activities that interest them. It is the best way to make friends! I’m not telling you to sign them up for everything. Have them pick a couple things to sign up for. A club may only meet once a week, and a sport may meet every day so there is a big difference in commitments. Having football every day after school is so good for my son. I can’t wait for my daughters to be able to join school sports too!
Your child is involved in sports and/or activities and goes to school and doesn’t have any friends and you are very concerned. Does your child have social skills? Do you have social skills? Are they able to hold a conversation? Do they seem to listen to people and appear interested? Do they respond back in the conversation? Do they make eye contact? Do they demonstrate patience and understanding? Do they have boundaries with people? My daughter had a friend who didn’t honor her personal space and despite her requests the girl never gave her space. Have you ever experienced a close talker? It makes me so uncomfortable. Pay attention to what strengths and weaknesses your child has and try to build their strengths. Books, movies and watching you are good ways for our children to learn how to have conversations.
We are a safe place for our children to come to and we can empower them to build more friendships. Point out to your children the strengths you see and adversity that they have already overcome. Listen and empathize and demonstrate to them how you want them to act with others. I tell my daughter how sweet, kind and friendly she is and that anyone would want to be her friend. You should see the smile I get when I say that. They believe what we tell them so tell them good things! Give them a good story and tell them to write their own good story. If they say they have no friends and nobody likes them, that is the story they are creating for themselves.
Your children will probably have a lot of bumps in friendships. They will learn with your help how to navigate through the ups and downs in relationships. I hope that your children continue to build their network of friendships. It’s easy for some and challenging for others. We all have our strengths and challenges.
Helping your children with friendships:
- Don’t project your issues or needs with friendship to your children. Every child is different in what they need.
- Help them to diversify friendships. We don’t want them to put all their eggs in one basket.
- Help them learn to keep their friendship circle open. Make sure they are being kind and inclusive.
- Keep your home a safe space for them to talk about their challenges. Respond in a nonreactive manner so they want to talk to you.
- Encourage friendships that are good influences for your children. Those are the kids I’m asking them to invite over, to parties, to activities, etc.
- Help them learn problem solving skills to navigate through conflicts with their friends.
- Sign your child up for sports, clubs, activities to meet friends.
- Empower your kids that they are capable of making friends and point out their strengths.
- Teach them social skills.
- Model the behavior you want to see in friendships.
I would love to hear your children’s strengths and challenges with friendship. I hope that you can take something away from this to be helpful.
In love and friendship,
Laughing, Learning, Loving,
Rebecca Greene, LCSW-R
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