We asked local experts to give their tips for helping kids form healthy friendships.
To find more answers to other common parenting questions, check out our collection of Ask the Experts.
Dr. Anne K. Jacobs:
Helping children develop healthy friendships begins early as we teach our kids how to communicate respectfully with others, view things from another's perspective and practice delayed gratification. When they are very young, these lessons may revolve around encouraging children to take turn on the playground swings and to stop to recognize another child's feelings. During these stages, it is easy for parents to be near their children to intervene and prompt as needed. As kids grow, the playground becomes more complicated. Communication skills now need to include how to negotiate with others, handle conflict in respectful ways and how to speak up for themselves. We may not jump into the fray as often, but children still need their parents to provide some supervision. During hang-outs at the house, keep an ear out for how kids interact. Remember, you are the architect of your children's time and developing friendships takes time. Make sure your children are not so over-scheduled with formal activities that they miss out on crucial unstructured play time. As your youngsters cruise into the preteen and teen years, help them think critically about whether certain friendships are healthy, how to set good personal boundaries and provide support if they need to break off a friendship. Checking in on interactions over social media can provide good fodder for conversation. Often times, teens may not want to talk directly about their own friendships, but they may still be open to discussing peers' relationships or analyzing friendships portrayed in movies or books. Finally, examine what you value in friendships yourself. Are you modeling healthy relationships and prioritizing friends in your daily life?
Anne K. Jacobs earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Child Psychology from the University of Kansas and enjoys serving children, adolescents and their families. In addition to her private practice in Edmond, she holds an adjunct faculty position at Southern Nazarene University. Her family includes: husband, Noel who is also a child psychologist; twin daughters, Keegan and Sarah; one dog, two cats, and five tarantulas.
One of the most important aspects of childhood is the development of healthy and positive friendships. Through friendships, children begin to build emotional connections with others. By actively nurturing your child’s developing interests, you can help them to identify their friends with similar interests and how to begin conversations with other peers. Remember that each child is different, so it is important to know your child’s boundaries for what makes them feel comfortable. Coach your child through new situations and encourage your child to try new activities, such as “unplugging” from electronics and arranging play dates to help your child prioritize the importance of their existing friendships, and to facilitate new ones. It is important for you to model how to treat and speak to others. Children are like sponges in that they absorb everything they see and hear, and they will imitate the ways you participate in different types of relationships. It is also important to teach your children about different emotions, which will help them learn how to process feelings and how to empathize with peers. This will also aid them with problem solving skills should conflict arise. Keep in mind: friendships do not always come naturally and often require support and guidance from parents. Encouraging your child with support will build confidence and helps to model for children how to be supportive for others.
Courtney Chandler is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapy and play therapist working for Sunbeam Family Services, a non-profit organization in Oklahoma City. Courtney is passionate about the power of play therapy and enjoys working with children, adolescents and their families.
1. Many children learn friendship skills through observation and practice. The shy or anxious child is doing a great deal of observing but might need additional assistance from adults to begin their practice. Here’s how to help:
2. Make the playground smaller. Identify potential friendships with the help of your child’s teacher, then invite them one at a time for a play date at your house. Your house is the comfort zone for your child. On familiar turf, your child will feel more at ease to practice the skills he or she has been observing at school.
3. Pre-playdate practice. Before the new friend comes over, take some time to teach your child how to be a good hostess. Practice welcoming at the door, offering activities and how to tell when it is time to suggest a different activity.
4. Reinforce good habits. After the playdate, compliment your child on how she treated her friend. Emphasize the positives without bringing up any problem areas and ask questions to find out how your child evaluated the play date. This is a great time to help your child develop her own definition of what makes a good friend as she is learning how to be a good friend to others.
5. Correct skill deficits slowly. Resolving conflict, coping with different interests or dealing with boredom are some examples of social exchanges that might need additional coaching and practice outside of the play date. Choose one skill at a time and be diplomatic in sharing your concern. Role play with your child to help develop more complicated social skills.
The shy child and the anxious child look very similar from the outside, but on the inside the anxious child is on alarm in social situations. Anxiety in childhood is isolating and interferes with social learning. A counselor trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can work with you and your child to learn relaxation techniques and plan practice in a way that makes social experiences more manageable. The company of one single friendship can improve a child’s stress resilience.
Dr. Lisa L. Marotta is celebrating 22 years of private practice. She is a clinical psychologist in Edmond with a special heart for women, children and families.
Heather Pike: Friendships are an essential part of living a happy, healthy life. As parents, we can help our kids develop and cultivate healthy friendships. Starting at a very young age, provide social opportunities and talk with them about what being a good friend means. Children with special needs or disabilities are no different when it comes to the importance of having friends. Here are some ideas to consider when helping foster those relationships:
1. Find activities they enjoy and get them involved so they can meet other kids who have similar interests.
2. Invite friends over to your home or meet at the park for play dates.
3. Play games at home to help develop social skills and role play.
4. Be a good role model.
If your child is on an Individualized Education Program, you can include social skills goals as a part of the school day. Through these activities and ideas, social skills such as taking turns, being a good listener, learning good sportsmanship and cooperation will lead to lasting friendships.
We probably all grew up hearing the Golden Rule, “Treat others the way you want to be treated” and when it comes to being a friend, there is some very simple wisdom in this. Healthy friendships should boost self-esteem, give a sense of belonging, support each other through good and bad times, but most of all friendships should be fun!
Heather Pike is the administrative director of the Oklahoma Family Network, a statewide non-profit organization connecting families who have children with special health care needs to other families and supports in their community. She and her husband, have been blessed with two amazing adult children, one of which has special health care needs. She is passionate about encouraging other families to never lose hope.
Greg Gunn: Healthy friendships start at home. Your child starts learning how to be a friend from the moment he or she sees you. Your child’s relationships with the other members of your family will greatly influence her relationships with people outside of your family. If your child is learning to value herself because the environment of your family communicates that they are valued, they will, most likely, not look for validation in relationships.
In addition to valuing themselves, it is important that children value other people just as much. Creating a humble child is not easy, but continually asking how they think other people feel helps. For example, if your daughter walks over to your son and takes his toy, ask her how she thinks that makes him feel. Teach your children to apologize and to forgive from the beginning. Knowing how to share, express emotion and apologize are all key skills when it comes to healthy relationships. As your children get older, make your house the place where everyone hangs out, not because you have all of the cool stuff, but because you have all the love. Care about your kids’ friends. Talk to your kids about their friends and be informed about what they do and how they talk to each other. Encourage them to be kind to each other. When sticky situations come up, be the voice of reason for your child. Help them see the problem objectively. There will be times your child caused the problem and will have to apologize. Don’t let them give up on friendships because of one silly argument.
Lastly, if you are well-informed about your kids’ lives, it will be easier to spot trouble. When your child has a manipulative friend, without trash talking the friend, help them see that this friendship may not be beneficial and show them how to remove the friend from the inner circle of close friends. Learning how to dump a toxic friend early will make it so much easier later when the consequences of those types of friends could be dangerous.
Greg Gunn, founder of Family-iD, is a life coach, pastor, author and speaker from Oklahoma City. Married for 30 years, Greg is a father of seven kids, a father-in-law and a grandfather of two. For 17 years, Greg has led Family Vision Ministries, a ministry that helps families put their purpose on paper and pass it on to future generations.
Trudy Ruminer: Let's face it, we are all born selfish! It's embedded deep in our DNA. Our primary job for at least the first couple years of life is to survive. So, if your two-year-old doesn't automatically express a desire to share his cookie or take turns, don't panic. The inherent survivalist in all of us senses deep in our beings that if we share our last cookie we may starve and perish off the face of the earth! But, take heart parents, because little by little, as developmentally appropriate, most children who consistently get their needs met by emotionally attuned, playfully engaged and compassionate caregivers evolve into persons capable of cultivating lasting, genuine, sharing the last cookie relationships.
Many of us, as loving, well intended parents believe that if we do a good enough job at teaching our children how to share, care and take turns, our child will learn to be a good friend, and that this in turn will catapult them into a happy, well connected, successful life. When an adult seeks help to sort out what’s gone wrong in their lives to cause them unhappiness, commonly the root of discontent turns out to be lack of a close, emotionally connected bond in their first primary relationships, their parents. No pressure there, right? There is mounting evidence to strongly suggest that the process of molding a little person into a big person who is more apt to enjoy enduring friendships starts the very second their slimy, cranky, selfish, it's-all-about-me selves take their first breaths. Children that have caregivers who consistently model patience and emotional attunement are able to be a good friend- first to themselves and then to others. And that, my friend, is the epitome of healthy friendship!
Trudy Ruminer is a licensed clinical social worker and the clinical director and owner of True North Therapeutic Solutions, an outpatient mental health agency in Oklahoma City. Trudy is mother to four adult children and the proud grandmother to one. She draws her knowledge not only from her own personal parenting experiences, but also from her years of experience working closely with families.
Adam Zodrow: Our oldest son is 4, and just now truly beginning to develop friendships outside of the families. He is beginning to gravitate toward a certain group of kids at his school, and we see him, for the most part, making good decisions. Since my wife and I can’t be with him all day to help him choose his pals, we try to make a conscious effort to model healthy relationships for him when he is home. We want him to see kindness, forgiveness, respect and unselfishness, so that he will take on these characteristics for himself, and desire these characteristics in the friends that he chooses. We also, to an extent, attempt to let he and his friends resolve conflicts in our home apart from our intervention. This is a challenge for me. My wife is much better at this. She is so good at talking our son and his friends through simple conflict resolution, and then sending them on their way. It’s a gift, for sure.
Adam is a writer and content strategist for Traction Marketing, here in OKC. He also travels as a National Teacher Consultant for Catapult Learning, serving schools all over the world. Adam spent 11 years working in public schools as a classroom teacher, administrator and library/media specialist. He and his wife Lindsay own Collected Thread in the Plaza, and are the proud parents of Noah (4) and Finn (1).
Nichole Mentzer: As adults, it is important to model what healthy friendships look like. When conflicts occur between our kids and their friends, we need to allow them to use their skills for conflict resolution before we intervene, which can often be hard to do. You might find that you are surprised at the social skills your child has learned just through observation. If you notice the conflict escalating, that is the time to step in and instruct both children in seeing the other’s point of view and directing them toward a peaceful and fair resolution. Managing conflict is essential in all healthy friendships.
Children learn how to initiate relationships by watching others, whether their parents, siblings or peers. However, quite a few kids may need some encouraging. A teacher may need to point out to students that the new student needs a buddy to show him around the playground. As a parent, we may need to give our child a pep talk before they are brave enough to go talk to a group of children playing together at the park. Always positively reinforce your child for being a good friend, especially to someone who needs a friend. This will remind them to be on the lookout for those situations. Adults also need to be aware of social anxieties, never push a child too hard and seek professional guidance if they feel a child is struggling socially.
Nichole Mentzer is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) accepting clients for individual, couples and family therapy. She is passionate in helping women reach their full potential and assisting growing families in achieving a place of peace and gratitude. Nichole primarily practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Strengths Perspective and Trauma Focused therapies. As a mother of a spirited child, she has come to fully appreciate the transformative experiences birth and motherhood has to offer. Nichole enjoys traveling and finding gratitude in the small moments in life.
To find more answers to other common parenting questions, check out our collection of Ask the Experts.