Where you stand in relation to your child’s friendships is one of the more awkward questions of parenthood. There’s no doubt that friendship is a critical childhood passage. Kids learn how to share, compromise, and work through misunderstandings with their friends. Yet the ups and downs of friendships can be hard for parents to watch.
"Most children will have hurt feelings at some time," says Mary Dobbins, MD, assistant professor of psychology at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. "Parents who overreact may make things worse."
How do you know when your child needs you, and when you need to back off? Here are seven tips from experts in child development:
1. Teach Friendship Skills
Kids want to play with kids who can have fun without taking over and bossing everyone around. Seeing you reach out to friends is your child’s first lesson in how to do that. "As parents, we’re role models," says social psychologist Susan Newman, PhD.
You can teach empathy by having your children help you do things like bringing food to a sick neighbor, or making a birthday card for a grandparent, suggests Newman, who is author of The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide. Children’s experience at home tends to extend out into the wider world.
2. Tune in to Your Child’s Friendship Style
Involving your child and forcing your child are two different things. "Parents oftentimes imprint their socialization, or lack thereof, onto their children," says Mason Turner, MD, chief of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center.
You could unknowingly limit your child if you assume he relates to friends the same way you do. Let your child show youwhat kind of social interactions work best for him. If your child loves group situations, great. But if groups upset your child, see if he does better playing with one or two children at a time.
3. Open Your Home to Your Child's Friends
If your child is young, invite her friends over for a play date. Be sure to have a couple of activities in mind. "Younger kids need direction," says Newman. Activities might include a box of dress-up clothes or a plan to make cookies, depending on your child’s interests.
Even when your child is old enough to plan her own activities, encourage her to have friends over. Make your home a welcoming place for your child’s’ friends. This can make things easier as she, and her friendships, mature. It will also give you the chance to get to know your child’s friends.
4. Help Your Child Work Through Friendship Troubles
Misunderstandings are common to friendships. Your child may need help working through emotions from time to time. In a study of 267 kids between 9 and 11 years old, the way a child perceived his friends’ behavior determined whether he got angry, sad, or felt OK about the situation. Kids who felt angry were more likely to want to end the friendship.