Helping Children Learn the Unwritten Rules of Friendship
By Lisa Phillips
The Parenting Center
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All children wonder and worry about friendships. Making and keeping friends is a skill that comes naturally to many children, but others need a little guidance and support. The unwritten rules that govern friendships are ones based on mutuality and reciprocity. Most of us know that if we talk too long our listener will look bored, or look away. We know that if we tease people, say rude things, insist on doing things our way all the time people will not be excited to spend time with us. Children often learn these things through experiences and observations, but some have difficulty picking up the cues other kids are giving them. If you are concerned about your child, here are some ways parents can help:
If your child seems worried about making friends, ask a teacher for his/her observations. A teacher (or coach, or another adult in your child’s life) can give you some valuable feedback about your child’s social life. She or he can let you know what difficulties your child may be having, and if there are any behaviors that may be getting in the way of making friends.
Think about what skills a child may be lacking and practice those at home. Every day parents have the opportunity to enhance their child’s skills through the following experiences: playing games so a child can learn to be "a good sport”; taking turns with toys with their siblings; resolving conflicts through problem-solving; using humor to look at the lighter side of things; and finding ways to cope when frustration inevitably occurs. Talk to your child how to observe a group of children, and then join in without interrupting the activity by being helpful, or making a positive comment. Role play with your child to help them think how to approach a potential new friend. Making eye contact, smiling, asking a friendly question ("I really liked that drawing you did. Can I see your other ones?) are specific strategies he or she can use.
Provide opportunities for unstructured play and for interest-based friendships. Many children have limited amounts of time for free play with friends, but these opportunities are very valuable for practicing skills. It also gives parents the opportunity to observe their child "in action” and discuss privately with their child what problems came up and what can be done to solve them next time. Set limits on electronics so kids will choose activities that involve interaction. Some children develop their closest friendships if they are based on shared interests or hobbies.
Listen to and acknowledge your child’s feelings about friendships. When your child comes to you with a concern about a friend, try to respond with empathy and support, rather than being dismissive or feeling like you must "fix” the situation. If a child truly seems unable to develop the skills needed to relate to other children, seek professional support and advice.
For more information check out the book, "The Unwritten Rules of Friendship” by Natalie Madorsky Elman and Eileen Kennedy-Moore.