The recipe for dissonance in childhood friendships goes something like this: Kids create a close connection. They add a spirit of competitiveness and an ounce of I’m-better-than-you-are. And voila: You’ve got conflict.
Winning friends and earning Guitar Hero rock-star status aren’t incompatible goals in the long term – but on any given afternoon, they can cause friction. In fact, a reasonable amount of conflict is good for kids. When disagreements arise, kids learn to negotiate, stand up for themselves and communicate their values. And when they mess up, they learn to take responsibility and make apologies, says Michelle Borba, Ed.D., author of Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me.
These social skills stick with kids into adulthood and are critical to school and career success. While parents can help kids learn from their experiences, we can’t learn these lessons for them. Use these strategies to support your kids through the trying times in social development:
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1. Create opportunities. Kids don’t want parents to manage their social lives – that just isn’t cool. To help kids make friends, parents have to be stealthy. Invite another family over for dinner and let the kids entertain themselves while the grown ups talk. They may groan initially, but they’ll rise to the occasion. Step back and let kids get acquainted through play. Share family activities often if kids hit it off.
2. Put problems in perspective. Though it’s easy to dismiss kids’ social woes as insignificant, research conducted at University of California Los Angeles shows social rejection activates the same brain areas responsible for physical pain. It seems being left out really does hurt. But don’t overreact – it’s likely your child will get over the hurt, reconcile with her friend, or find a new one.
3. Check your expectations. Kids vary widely in how many friends they have, and the depth of their relationships. “How many friends our kids have isn’t the issue,” Borba says. What matters most are your child’s feelings about himself and his relationships with peers. Friendship should be a (mostly) positive experience.
4. Be a sounding board. When kids share their struggles, it’s tempting to step in and solve the problem. Resist the urge to call the friend’s parent or tell your child what to say or do. Instead, support your child by listening to what happened, and absorb the weight of her worries. With your emotional support, your child will find her own way to mend the rift.
Quarrels and breakups happen, and kids’ hurt feelings run deep. Often but not always – after some time or a shift in activities – kids find a way to make up. To parents, it sometimes seems kids break up and make up too easily. They go from best friends to worst enemies and back again before we even know what’s happening.
Whether friends come or go, parents can offer a listening ear, a silly smile and a shoulder to cry on. But we can’t make them empathize, sort out their feelings, force an apology or fix their friendships. Some lessons only friends can teach.
This post was originally published in 2010 and has been updated for 2016.