Friendships in early childhood: do’s and don’ts for parents

Children’s friendships are unique. They flourish in the moment yet they change unpredictably. Young children’s social and emotional lives are intricately woven together. If a child is happy, friendships are spontaneous and easy; if he’s tired or frustrated, his ability to be a friend is seriously handicapped. Learning to be a friend is on-going process of discovery and curiosity.

A parent’s role is to create opportunities for social/emotional learning. What does your child like? Who shares your child’s idea of fun? And who surprises your child with new ways of playing? Friendships teach your child to appreciate other children’s personalities and play-styles as well as to experiment with different kinds of interaction.

Step back for a minute to consider the social world through your child’s eyes: the excitement of following an older child onto a new playground or the hesitation of watching a group of unfamiliar children huddled together. Early childhood friendships are experimental requiring daring and skill. Adults are essential to lend guidance and encouragement but they must also be careful to monitor excessive intervention.

strong>Friendship Don’ts

1. Don’t assume your child feels the same way you do. Sand in the face might make you angry while it might make your child laugh (we stop the sand throwing but your child may not actually be hurt). A rambunctious child might be thrilling to your child while she may be exhausting to you (invite this child to a fun day at the park instead of a quiet movie).
2. Don’t be a fixer. Children need to manage difficult social situations like a child who cheats to gain an advantage or being deserted by a fickle friend. Watch first (your child may simply walk away from conflict or rebound easily). Give your child the power of viable options by asking “what can you do when that happens?” Then encourage more choices: “what else can you do?”
3. Don’t rush progress. Children need time to master social skills in a variety of situations. Give your child time to practice new skills – he may want to continue to play with friend who pushes his buttons. Learn with him, not for him.
4. Don’t feed into victim-thinking. Overprotection feeds helplessness. Teach your child how to puff out her chest and say “no, I don’t like that” instead of rescuing her. If your child is intimidated in a situation, model and rehearse strong talk and strong body language.
5. Don’t hold grudges. Your child doesn’t.

Teaching friendship skills prepares your child for a lifetime of social situations: cooperation and persuasion, assertiveness and compromise, winning and losing. It takes a fearless parent to stand behind a child growing in confidence and skill.

Friendship Do’s

1. Slow things down. Be alert to escalating emotions. Children are easily swept up in emotional storms and act impulsively. Freeze the action by asking “what’s happening here?” Even when children are too young to answer, you’ll see that heck-if-I-know expression that tells you they need a minute to stop and regroup.
2. Teach children to say it with words. Once things are calm, children can usually say what they want and what they need. This won’t solve “the problem” but it gets the problem on the table.
3. Teach listening. Listening take practice especially when you’d rather scream, hit or run away. Children learn to listen only when they learn that everyone gets to speak and talking helps solve problems. Remind children that everyone gets a turn and everyone’s needs matter.
4. Facilitate problem solving. Children are resourceful and creative. With practice, they can find solutions if asked the right questions: What can you do when you both want the same toy? What will make you happy and your friend happy? How can you show your friend you still like her? Look for win-win goals and help the children connect the dots to get there.

Social skills are innate for a small percentage of children who are born playground mayors. These kids make strangers feel welcome and work a room like a winning candidate. Most kids learn social skills by transforming personal strengths into social strengths and childhood is the playground for social learning.

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