Back to School: Making the Best of Friendships

By Kelly Crockett 2018-12-20 23:26:08

And what to do when fall-outs occur

Friendships are a precious aspect of childhood, as they're one of the few things kids actually get to choose for themselves. They can be the source of their greatest joys, but common issues can also make them their lowest of lows. For parents, it’s sometimes hard to remember being in that situation, and with the rise of social media, it’s a different environment from what we once knew. To help, parents can begin by understanding the “ground rules,” how they change over time, and what can be done to help navigate the tumultuous tides of schoolyard friendships.


Preschool and Early Elementary


This is an exciting stage of development, as preschoolers are just beginning to make relationships separate from their parents. At this stage, they’re still very “me”-centric, as young children are still learning to cooperate and empathize. They may still base their friendships on how much they stand to gain from them. Other things to look out for are: 

• Fleeting friendships: It’s common to quickly make and lose friends, and small (seemingly trivial) conflicts can totally end a friendship. It can be hard when someone seems to not want to play with your child.

• Best friends: There’s a strong desire to not just have friends, but to have best friends. Children can feel betrayed when a best friend chooses to play with someone else.

• Harsh truths: It can be mortifying, but young children have an underdeveloped social filter. Kids may say things that are true, but that are inappropriate nonetheless.

How you can help


Soften the blow: Remind your child that it’s okay for friends to come and go. Signe Whitson, licensed therapist and Director of Counseling and Wellness at The Swain School in Allentown, Pennsylvania, says,

“Parents play a key role in helping kids understand the inevitability of change in interpersonal relationships. Remind your child a friendship breakup is not a failure, but rather a predictable (albeit painful) part of growing up.”

Direct communication: Psychotherapist Ingrid Schweiger, Ph.D, and author of Self-Esteem for a Lifetime, recommends teaching children to make “I” statements (i.e. “I feel left out”) to express emotions, rather than “you” statements (“You are mean!”). Also, teach them how to apologize.

Celebrate diversity: While we may feel embarrassed when our kids vocalize others’ differences, Dr Schweiger says it’s best to not shush, but to acknowledge how wonderful it is we’re not all the same. “Think of your kid’s curiosity as an opportunity to teach them about respecting differences.”

Late Elementary and Middle School


Middle school can be a hormone-filled pressure cooker, but it’s exciting to see kids developing their own interests and becoming engaged in the world around them. Relationships shift towards being defined by talk: about music, clothes and, of course, the opposite sex. Kids are now more likely to confide in their friends, and may begin to turn to them (instead of you) for help.

• Aggression and toxic friendships: Friendship can be used as a weapon. Kids can feel powerful by forming relationships that exclude others, or through manipulation and control.

• Cliques and gossiping: While cliques are normal, they become problematic when exclusionary, mean or gossip-fueled. Social hierarchies form as early as first or second grade and by the third can become harmful says Peter Adler, PhD, Professor of Sociology at the University of Denver.

• Hormonal changes: According to Psychotherapist Dr Shang Rasul Frederiksen, M.S., of Shanghai United Family Hospital and Clinics, changes in awareness of sexuality and the need for independence from parents, can be terrifying; leading to many common adolescent behaviors and struggles between parents and children.

How you can help


Don’t solve all their problems: Dr Frederiksen explains that with early guidance, many small dramas can be solved on their own.

“When young, we learned social interactions through trial and error. You don’t need to figure everything out at once, so you can’t expect your teen to do it either, nor can you entirely protect them against it. It’s called life experience for a reason; it has to be experienced.”

Open communication lines: Designate weekly family time in which each member chooses an activity to do together. This can build “a warm and validating environment and send the message that should problems arise, family is still here and still interested in helping.” Frederiksen stresses the importance of listening to your child; don’t nag or lecture, and refrain from anger when they share ideas or plans you may disapprove of.

Watch for toxic friends: Licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert, Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC, says some signs that your child may be in a toxic friendship are seen with those who manipulate or belittle your child, are rude publicly, or who may want your child to keep lots of secrets.

Junior High and High School


By the time junior high hits, teenage friendships begin to closely model those of adults. Many of the snarky behaviors from early on subside, but some persist and new concerns may develop.

Social media: Oversharing (private information with friends, strangers, or inappropriate content or photos) and cyber-bullying are serious concerns, and many teens don’t grasp the staying-power of social media content.

• Peer pressure: Peer pressure is incredibly powerful and can lead to acting in out of character ways. Teens face temptations, from sex to stealing, to experimentation with smoking, alcohol or drugs.

• Need for parental separation: It’s normal to seek more independence, and some may distance themselves from parents entirely; this can make it diffcult to even know when their kids may be experiencing social problems at school, such as bullying or engaging in dangerous behavior.

How you can help

Monitor and discuss: Tricia C. Bailey of the University of Texas offers dos and don’ts when discussing appropriate social media use with kids. She suggests being open about the fact that you will monitor your child’s social media sites. Don’t make social media forbidden (it only makes them want it more) and don’t belittle their interest in it.

Combat peer pressure: “Children and adolescents with healthy self-esteem and solid family relationship are better prepared to deal with peer pressure and conflict,” says Dr Frederiksen. It’s paramount to build a solid foundation early by teaching values, modeling healthy behavior, and sharing experiences from your own adolescence.

Make it a team effort: “If your teen is reluctant to talk to you about their issues, it’s not abnormal,” Dr Frederiksen notes. “You can wait and see if the problem resolves within days or a few weeks. If it doesn’t and you’re still concerned, contact the school counselor, teacher, or bring your child to see a psychologist they feel comfortable with. Often it is easier to talk to someone else rather than their parents.”