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Posted on 12 September 2017

Friendship is one of life’s greatest gifts. For toddlers, early socialising establishes healthy patterns for solid friendships later in life and lays foundations for a strong ‘sense of self’. For older children, a personal support network creates an invaluable sense of belonging and emotional wellbeing. To create good friendships, children need to master a plethora of social skills from basic communication to self-control, empathy, and compromise. We’ve rounded up the latest thinking to help parents navigate the sometimes choppy waters.

‘All aboard!’ – Building Blocks for a lifetime of friendship

For toddlers: close adult supervision is key to success. Be proactive and promote social interaction by attending toddler groups or hosting playdates, and don’t be alarmed if your toddler conjures up an imaginary friend. Encourage kindness and sharing, and don’t shy away from direct intervention during inevitable moments of conflict. Instil an early sense of right and wrong and insist on good manners. Monitor social development milestones to ensure your child is on track.

For 8 – 11 year olds: teach tactics for independent play and communication. Before joining a game, encourage your child to stand back and consider what they can do to fit in, and to ‘go with the flow’. Foster the art of conversation and when arguments arise, encourage the use of words over actions. Role play tricky scenarios at home to demonstrate conflict resolution and to show how words can be hurtful if used incorrectly.

Explain the benefits of walking away from tense situations, and help your child accept that sometimes the end of a friendship isn’t the end of the world. Relationships will change over time, and a broad friendship base is key. Most importantly, lend an ear - keeping lines of communication open now will work wonders in the future when social ups-and-downs become more complex.

For older children: ask teenagers how they’re feeling on a regular basis, and don’t underestimate their continued need for social and moral guidance. Let them know your support is there even if they don’t appear to want it. When challenges arise, give practical advice and share your own experiences, but avoid getting personally involved. Explain that conflict is a normal part of growing up, and equip youngsters with the know-how to resolve problems independently, and to understand when to seek help or adult support.

Promote time away from Social Media to encourage face-to-face friendship. While social networking facilitates fun, sharing, and exploration of sensitive issues that might be difficult to discuss with parents, being constantly ‘logged on’ can lead to insufficient ‘real’ friendships and feelings of rejection, exclusion, and unhappiness.

‘Staying afloat’ – what to do when your child doesn’t ‘fit in’

While parents of children on the autistic spectrum may be well informed about how to support their child in social situations other parents may not understand or may misinterpret behaviour which can be upsetting for that child’s parent. Campaigns such as the National Autistic Society’s “TMI” campaign are useful to share with friends and family to help them understand how they can better support your child.

Introvert, shy and anxious children often require extra social support. Organise meet-ups before a new term starts and equip worried youngsters with ice-breaker questions for new social situations. Instigate friendships away from the pressures of school by trying out a new club, finding a pen pal, or introducing a pet to boost wellbeing and companionship. Rest assured that children only need one or two really good friends to keep them socially afloat and happy.

‘Sink or swim’ – tackling toxic friendships

‘Frenemies’:  toxic friendships are a challenge for people of all ages, but can be particularly damaging to children’s social confidence and self-esteem. Girls and boys suffer alike, so learn how to spot the signs. Talk to your child about what a good friend is and how to keep a safe distance from their ‘frenemies’. 

Bullying: it’s no secret that bullying, in all its modern-day forms, can lead to depression, anxiety, and isolation. Learn how to identify the signs and intervene at the earliest sign. Seek out information that is specific to you and to your child. Adopting a prompt, proactive approach in conjunction with teachers and other adult carers is key to facilitating swift and successful resolutions.

Above all else it is important for our children to understand that falling in and out of friendship is perfectly normal and hopefully the advice in this article will enable you to equip your child with the necessary life skills to develop and maintain healthy friendships.