The fine art of navigating friendship

Parent and child holding hands

We’ve all been there – those dreaded afternoons when we pick up a sad or angry child who has had a fall-out or disagreement with a friend, and it seems their entire world is collapsing around them. The truth is, it is! Navigating friendship and learning how to develop healthy, meaningful and lasting relationships is of paramount importance in every child’s growth and development, and we, as parents, have a big part to play in this.

By Lorraine Benn, HOD Pupil Support, Waterfall Preparatory

Every person is born with an innate desire to belong and feel safe. Part of God’s original plan for His children was for us to be connected, to share our lives with one another and learn to love and be loved. We could equate childhood friendships to a boot camp, a training field for learning the essential skills needed to ensure children build the social skills they will need to thrive in community, wherever they are. 

But, yes, there will be times when the ‘playground’ resembles a minefield and, instead of the feeling of safety and belonging we so desperately want our children to experience, we watch them unravel, get hurt, get angry, become nasty, retreat and, worst of all, become lonely.

It is essential that we, the parents of children entrusted to us by God, learn when to hold our children’s hands loosely and when to tighten our grip on this journey. Here are a few tips to get us thinking:

  1. Validate how your child is feeling. Outside of family, friendships are the most significant part of a child’s life and so they should be! When things go wrong, they act like their world is falling apart because it is, and the greatest help we can offer our children is to be present. 
    • Listen 
    • Care 
    • Acknowledge how they are feeling
    • Empathise with them. 
  2. An easy mistake to make is taking on the battle ourselves and becoming overly invested in fixing our children’s problems. We need to learn to assess each moment of conflict and choose wisely when to leap in. Mostly, our children are better problem solvers than we think and are able to face conflict with only our wise encouragement and assurance of our love and support.
    Yes, there are times when our intervention, our ‘Mamma Bear’ instinct is necessary to protect our children, but my encouragement to you is to consider very carefully the why, when and how you do this. If reconnection is our desired goal, then ‘attack’ cannot be our weapon. Starting with phrases like ” I feel like…”, “Can we talk about…”, “Help me understand…” all communicate a willingness and desire for restoration and open a conversation, rather than a fight.

  3. Consider that it is possible that your child is the problem, not the victim. Being able to lead your child into a space where they are able to reflect and take accountability for their own behavior is giving them a gift that will help them throughout their lives. Aim to empower your children to ‘clean up their own mess’ and to do this with humility and integrity. There is so much power in the words “I am sorry”.

  4. Setting boundaries is a vital tool every child (and person) needs to enjoy healthy relationships. Have conversations about what your family values are and what is acceptable and unacceptable to you. Speak into your children’s identity so they know their own value and self worth. Teach your children how to seek out like-minded friends who make them feel safe and to set respectful boundaries when they don’t. Keeping a good friend close is a beautiful thing, but not every friend you make earns access to your inner circle. Teach your children how to keep people at a distance where they are comfortable and able to manage the relationship positively. 

  5. Encourage kindness! Encourage your children not to engage negatively or aggressively, but to be kind – always. Think carefully about the way you speak about other people in front of your children. If your instinct is to attack a person’s character through gossip and harsh language, you cannot expect anything less from your children. Modelling healthy conflict resolution in our own relationships is our responsibility and by far the best way to teach our children to do the same.

  6. We can influence, but we cannot choose our children’s friends. They are unique and perhaps enjoy things about others you don’t. Stay close, get to know your children’s friends and celebrate the treasure you see in them. It’s also likely that at various times you may have doubts about your child’s choice of friends. However, criticising and judging those people who are so important to your child at a certain time will only drive a wedge between you and your child. Protect your connection with your child above all else. Ultimately, let them decide and trust that you’ve passed on to them the skill set necessary to make good decisions.

Buckle up! Doing this well can be a rollercoaster ride, and just when you feel like you are winning, your child turns 13 and you are back at the beginning. They change, people change, the pond changes and the rollercoaster takes off again. But NOW is the time to establish an identity and a moral compass that become a part of who your child is. There may be twists and loops in the journey, but the principles and values you teach while they are young are far more likely to be their default. Working hard to help them now will sow seeds for when they need the fruit most. Making, keeping and breaking friendships is a normal part of childhood development. Let’s help our children without letting our own worlds crash when things are tough.

From one imperfect parent to another, God bless you as you hold hands with the ones you love most. 

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