Advancing Children's Health

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Childhood friendships foster fun and good mental health

Published by , on Oct 11, 2017

The ability to make friends, keep friends and nurture these relationships over time is a good reflection of how well a person will thrive later in life – socially, emotionally and academically. Learning the qualities of a good and dependable friend paves the way for positive relationships in adulthood and provides children with an example of positive behavior to follow. The manner in which friendships evolve assists in the formation of childhood memories that become the base of stable future relationships. The capacity to make and keep friends also enhances confidence, self-esteem and self-worth.

Big lessons in child’s play

When interacting without the aid of technology such as phones or computers, children engage in play that utilizes creativity and collaboration. These are immensely important skills to develop and this type of play creates opportunities for children to learn about their own strengths and weaknesses, the rules of social engagement and much more. Developing friendships with children from diverse backgrounds allows for learning about the customs and lifestyles of different people which provides an opportunity to broaden a child’s thinking and life experiences.

By the time a child has spent a few years interacting socially, their friendships will grow and wax and wane in intensity. Through this process, children build a community that serves as a reference point for appropriate rules of behavior. As friendships change over time, they also teach invaluable relationship lessons. Friendships can create conflict and parents have a unique opportunity to guide children in learning how to negotiate boundaries, problem solve and become confident as problem solvers while being in a safe situation.

Friendship red flags

Some friendships can be detrimental. Red flags might be an extreme degree of influence that a friend may have on your child which could stifle your child or make them vulnerable to negative role modeling. At times, the values and principles a friend has may gradually color your child’s views and put them in potential clashes with the values you hold important.

It is a parent’s responsibility to keep an eye on the type of friends their child is making and to monitor their child’s behavior: Are they emulating appropriate behaviors? Are they usually happy/content meeting this friend or is it often a conflict-ridden interaction? Are they on track with their academics? Are they using good communication methods with you and your family? Are they focusing on the friend to the exclusion of all?

If there are concerns you have around these issues, set aside time to sit down with your child or teen and discuss your concerns. Discussing these issues in a calm, even-handed and objective manner is most likely to be effective.

Teen friendships

Younger children are likely to be more open to talking about their friendships and feelings so it is typically easy to keep an eye on their friend circle, but this can be more challenging as they become adolescents. Adolescence is a period of increasing dependence on peer relationships. The intense need for peer and social acceptance and a normal need to develop independence from parents lead to deepening friendships and less communication with parents. The adolescent years are a time for much greater emotional investments in friendships than childhood and so a genuine emotional move away from family members also typically occurs at this age. Too rigid or too lax oversight of what friends your teen is making may create problems during this stage.

Helping teens manage their expectations of friends and the complexities of the more intense friendships that occur during the teen years is an important role for parents. This includes being emotionally available to a child’s needs; helping them learn how to handle breaks in relationships while maintaining their self-worth; and guiding them on how to handle peer pressure, substance use, damaging relationships (emotional and physical abuse) or other issues of concern.

At times parents may need to turn to their own trusted friends for guidance. If good counsel is not available, a pediatrician or adolescent medicine specialist is a good first step in seeking professional advice regarding a teen’s behavior as they are familiar with normal teenage development. A consultation with a mental health professional such as a psychologist, psychiatrist or counselor is typically necessary in situations where erratic behavior seems to be stemming from depression, substance abuse or other concerning mental health issues.

A strong base

Like any milestone your child will go through as they grow and develop, the different connections a child makes through their childhood friendships are important in shaping who they will become. Your support and guidance along the way can help them develop a strong base for healthy relationships throughout life.

New school year, new friendships

A new school year brings many new opportunities for a child to connect with friends both old and new. There are several ways you can help nurture the friendships in your child’s life.

  • Set aside 10 minutes each day to discuss anything on your child’s mind. The friends they are making will be an important touchpoint topic and you can share advice when needed.
  • It’s a simple lesson, but so important: Encourage your children to be kind to others. Kindness is a critical component of positive and healthy friendships throughout life.
  • Make generosity toward others an important value your children learn. Helping a friend even when it would be easier to have fun with others is a great example of being a generous friend. A willingness to share and give is a character trait that assists in developing and nurturing friendships throughout life as the best friendships are based on give and take, but with limited expectations of being paid back.
  • Find opportunities to meet up with your child’s classmates – perhaps going to a local park with a picnic. If enjoyable, an activity like this can lead to regular playtime in the park with a new bunch of friends and minimal burden on time or resources. These get-togethers provide a chance for you to see how your child interacts with others and encourage their positive behaviors related to friendships and play.

Bullying behavior

A discussion of childhood friendship is incomplete without some mention of bullying. Bullying behavior stems from a sense of inadequacy and wanting control.

Frequently, children who become bullies were once bullied themselves. Children don’t always tell others that they’re being bullied. They tend to react to bullying either by withdrawing and becoming depressed or swinging the other way and becoming aggressive.

Read more on bullying from Dr. Bela Sood.

By Dr. Bela Sood, child and adolescent pscyhiatrist
Virginia Treatment Center for Children provides services for children and adolescents with mental health needs ranging from depression and ADD/ADHD to anxiety and autism spectrum disorders. VTCC is a division of the VCU Department of Psychiatry.

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