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Developing Healthy Friendships

IMAGE "Every time I see him on the playground, he's playing by himself. He seems happy, but I'm worried that he doesn't have any friends. When I ask him why he doesn't play with the other children, he says he would rather play by himself." –Tyden's father
"My daughter is very rude and bossy to her friends. Several mothers have called to tell me that my daughter was verbally abusive to their child. Her preschool teacher has also told me that her bossiness is a problem in the classroom. I have talked to her many times about her rude behavior, but it doesn't seem to make a difference. I am afraid that if this continues, she won't have any friends." –Janet's mother
"We recently moved to a new neighborhood and my daughter is having trouble fitting in. In fact, the children tease her constantly. Lately, she won't even go outside in her own yard when the neighborhood children are out playing. It breaks my heart because she had so many great friends in our previous neighborhood." –Lisa's mother

Ways to Encourage Friendship

Any parent who has experienced the joy of a true friend wants their child to have similar experiences of their own. Likewise, parents who have experienced the loneliness and isolation associated with the lack of friendship also want to protect their child from such feelings. It is important that children have healthy friendships when they are young because this sets the groundwork for building positive relationships later in life. But how do parents guide their child toward healthy friendships while allowing them the freedom to learn important lessons from both the "good" friends as well as the "bad" ones? Here are a few tips:
  • Teach your child the qualities of being a good friend. The most effective way to teach a child how to be a good friend is to be a positive role model. When your child watches you make sacrifices for your friends, spend quality time with them, and remain loyal through difficult times, they will learn that these are the expected qualities of a friend. However, if children hear their parents criticizing their own friends, canceling plans with them, and distancing themselves when their friends experience "messy" situations, such as a job loss, divorce, etc, they will demonstrate similar behavior with their friends.
  • Listen and talk to your children about their friends. Let your children know that you are sincerely interested in their friendships. By establishing a pattern of open communication when your child is young, they will be more apt to come to you when they want to share something great that they have experienced with a friend, or when they have a problem with a friend.
  • Listen carefully and keep an open mind. You will learn more about your child as they relate to others, and your child will learn a great deal about himself. This discovery can be enlightening, encouraging, humorous, frustrating, and sometimes painful for both you and your child. The important thing is that you allow your child the freedom to talk openly about his friends without a judgmental or critical response.
  • Ask your child questions. Examples include "What do you enjoy about being with your new friend?" or "How did you feel when she said that to you?" Encourage your child to think independently, while showing him or her that you are sincerely interested.
  • Be available when intervention is needed. Sometimes it is necessary to intervene. But knowing when and how can be difficult. When someone has hurt your child, either emotionally or physically, it is natural to want to step in and retaliate. However, this approach is not usually the best long-term solution. Character is developed as children learn to confront these battles on their own. You can encourage your child to handle their interpersonal conflicts on their own, while still letting them know you are there to support them. Begin by talking to your child about how they want to handle the problem. Discuss choices and possible consequences. Finally, assure them that you are on their side, and you are willing to intervene if they need you.

RESOURCES

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance http://www.dbsalliance.org

Kids'Health http://kidshealth.org/

National Institutes of Mental Health http://www.nimh.nih.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Canadian Mental Health Association http://www.ontario.cmha.ca/index.asp

Mental Health Canada http://www.mentalhealthcanada.com/