Chrissy Khachane is an educational consultant, parenting coach and new contributor for Mommy Shorts.
As parents, we try to instill positive character traits and healthy friendship habits with our children from a very young age. We help our toddlers learn to share, take turns, and understand the basics of empathy, but as our children get older, we have less and less control over the decisions they make in their friendships and who they choose to spend time with. While this is a normal (and healthy) part of letting our children become increasingly independent, it can be challenging when your child is spending time with someone who you feel may be a bad influence.
As children enter the elementary years, they move away from their parents and create more independent relationships on their own. It isn’t uncommon for friends in elementary school to become “inseparable” or “best friends.” Along with the budding independence, also comes the possibility of negative friendships that may manifest as competitiveness or being exclusive towards others. If you find yourself questioning a particular friendship during this stage, you might find it helpful to consider the following:
1) Set aside time to have a ‘friendship check-in’ with your child.
Open a conversation with your child by asking them about various social activities/opportunities both in and outside of school. More than likely, your child will discuss different friends or friend groups throughout your conversation, making this a good opportunity to discuss or ask your child what he/she likes about individual friends. Listening to your child’s view on their friendship will provide a window into what they are drawn to in each of their friends and allow for you to gain a better understanding of your child’s different friendship dynamics.
2) Revisit the definition of a good friend.
Children are never too old to engage in a conversation about what makes a good friend, and I have yet to meet a parent who hasn’t benefited from a similar conversation with their spouse or close friends. You can begin by drawing a circle in the middle of a blank piece of paper and asking your child to provide adjectives that define a good friend. Next, ask your child to provide adjectives to describe a less than ideal or bad friend. Lastly, ask your child to identify friends who have each of the characteristics on the page, while making a point to focus on both the positive and the negative attributes. In some cases, your child will find that a friend fits well in the ‘good friend’ portion of the page, while others might either fit in the ‘poor friend’ or even in-between the two sections (having some positive and some negative attributes). The goal of this exercise is not to label friends as good or bad, so much as to facilitate a conversation about the role different friends play in your child’s life. You want to help your child identify individual behaviors as opposed to making a large sweeping statement about a particular individual’s character. For example, one friend might be a lot of fun but not always nice, which helps you to understand why you child is drawn to that person. It can also help you identify the friends who best meet your child’s friendship needs (for example, nice and fun) and then as a parent, you can help encourage those particular friendships by planning play dates and after school activities with that child. You can also speak to his/her teacher to see if they will help encourage what you feel is a positive friendship by pairing them up for a project in class.
3) Be accepting and keep an open mind.
As parents, we will not like every classmate, teammate, or peer our child calls a friend. Part of preparing our children for adulthood involves allowing them to experience different types of relationships in order to develop their own sense of self and character. Unless the relationship poses a serious threat to them, it is okay to let situations play out on their own. Throughout this time, you can utilize strategies that help reinforce healthy behaviors, positive friendships, and what the expectations for behavior are in your own home.
4) Model positive friendships.
While it is important to recognize the signs of negative friendships with our children, it is equally important to model how our children can develop positive friendships. No matter the age, parents can start by maintaining healthy friendships in their own lives (think about that childhood friend or college roommate you are still in touch with), modeling good friendship skills, and respecting each child’s personality (refrain from comparing how many friends one sibling has over the other, or how socially active they are in comparison to one another). Everybody makes friends differently.
5) Figuring out how to handle uncomfortable situations.
Sometimes making the decision to spend less time with a certain friend is the easy part, while undertaking the physical act of separating on the playground or during a social event can be stressful for a child. Help your child build confidence for these situations by role playing what the conversation might look like. Take on different roles (e.g. give an accepting response, a negative response, or even play the role of a hurtful response) and provide your child with the opportunity to rehearse what to say and how to respond. Sometimes understanding the notion that we cannot control the way others feel or what they might say helps a child gain confidence to navigate the scenario. Also, remind your child that it is normal to want to spend time with a different friend group, realize they have less in common with someone than they had thought previously, or to disagree with the behavior of a child who they had felt connected to. Remember that friendships hold a significant influence over the decisions our children make and accepting the notion of growing apart (and how to navigate those circumstances) is something children will carry into adulthood.
As children enter the teenage years, friends begin to hold major pull over their child’s choices. Above all, parents need to focus on keeping the lines of communication open with their child and a big part of this means checking your own biases in order to remain open and available to listen and understand your teenager’s perspective. The tips below provide an outline for navigating a negative friendship dynamic with your teenage child.
1) Be observant and look for signs of concerning behavior. Unhealthy relationships are about power, control, and a lack of mutual respect (or boundaries). If you feel your child is spending a lot of time with one particular friend, or group of friends, less time in school (or attending classes), that’s a warning sign. It is also not a good sign if your child is overly connected to their digital device and has been observed initiating or engaging in unkind, intimidating, or threatening behaviors online or through their social media platforms.
2) Set aside time to have a calm ‘check-in’ with your child. Set aside time to speak in a private setting with your child and initiate a conversation by asking them open-ended questions about various social activities/opportunities both in and outside of school. As your child talks about the peers they spend time with, inquire what specifically your child enjoys about spending time with a particular friend or group of friends. Listening to your child’s view on their friendships will provide a window into what they are drawn to in each of their friends and allow for you to gain a better understanding of the dynamic with different peers.
3) Focus on unhealthy behaviors. The focus of the conversation should be on the unhealthy behaviors in the friendship or friend group and not any one specific person. Refrain from labeling the friendship as “bad’ or “negative” as this can cause a child to shut down. Focus on the behaviors you are observing and how those behaviors make your child feel. Children are never too old to engage in a conversation about what makes a good friend. Offer your child suggestions for possible solutions to problems or issues that exist.
4) Remember that conversations take time. It is important not to get discouraged if your child refuses to talk or shares a limited amount of information. If after a few tries, it is clear that your child is not comfortable opening up with you, try having someone else they are close with (like a teacher, grandparent, or aunt/uncle) speak with them. The most important goal of any conversation is to let your child know that you care and are available when they need to talk.
5) Allow your child to make their own decisions. This can be especially hard to do as a parent, but if your child is in an unhealthy friendship, the last thing you want to do is ban them from spending time with another child or group of friends from the get-go. It is important to give your child an opportunity to take the feedback you have given and make the necessary changes. Be open about your concerns with a particular friendship and make sure your child knows you are available any time they need your support (including if they are outside the home and need help with an uncomfortable situation).
6) If there is any risk of danger, call the police. If your child is in immediate danger, you should alert authorities (i.e. school security or 911) right away. Even if you are concerned your child will feel betrayed or angry, a person’s overall safety is the most important thing.
Please feel free to discuss or ask questions about any specific social or friendship issue you are having trouble navigating with your child in the comments below.
Chrissy Khachane is a boy mom (x3) and Educational Consultant and Parenting Coach who is passionate about empowering parents with research-based information so they can make informed decisions for their family. You can learn more about her at @simplychrissyk or find articles, information and recent TV segments on her Facebook page and Twitter.