Many parents can relate to the experience of having a child come home from school in tears because she was not invited to the same party as her friends. Or, suddenly your son’s best friend is no longer interested in hanging out with him. In these situations, it’s common for parents to feel anger, sadness, and helplessness at watching their child feel bad. These feelings are understandable since the ability to make and keep friends is integral to our well-being and happiness.
Parents often struggle with the best way to ease their child’s pain, ranging from stepping in to take action and “fix” the issue to feeling worried and unsure of the best way to help. But, parents can play an important role in helping children navigate this very natural, if painful, part of growing up.
Why All the Drama?
It can be jarring to watch children experience so much upheaval when it comes to friendships, but this is part of developing from childhood into teens and young adults. Children, especially those in early adolescence, are trying to figure out who they are as individuals, apart from their parents. Since doing so requires a lot of experimentation with new things, such as clothing, hairstyles, and music, it makes sense that “trying on” friends is part of the process of finding out what “fits” them and their interests.
How Parents Can Help
Smart Love explains that children relate to their peers based on how their parents treat one another and how they relate to them. This becomes their template for how to relate to friends and future relationships. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain, “A person carries this internal model of relating into all kinds of relationships that occur throughout life. The relationship ideals of a child whose developmental needs have been met will include a respect for other people’s motives even when they are incompatible with his own, the ability to care deeply and appropriately for significant others, and the capacity to resist attempts by others to derail his own healthy intentions.”
Having a positive, close relationship with parents can also help:
Minimize the Effect of Peer Pressure—When a child’s emotional needs have been adequately responded to, she’s more likely to seek appropriate relationships with her friends and is less likely to be swayed by arguments that she should engage in self-destructive activities, such as drug use and premature sexual activity, because everyone else is doing them.
Build Resilience—Although a child may feel hurt and disappointed if he is excluded by his friends, he will not be devastated. Instead, he will know that he will always have the unconditional love and acceptance of his parents.
Maintain Positive Relationships—A child is also less inclined to engage in power struggles with her friends over whose wishes should prevail. And she will be less likely to act in a way that causes unhappiness, such as provoking fights or focusing on slights.
So, how can you put Smart Love into action when relationship issues bubble up for your child? If your child is upset about something related to friends and is ready to talk, it’s helpful to listen attentively and with empathy. Then try to respond with an acknowledgment of his feelings. In the case of being excluded, you could try saying something like, “Thank you for sharing this me. It’s hard to be left out, especially when you thought you would be included. Maybe there is something fun we can do together that night, like go to a movie?”
Sometimes parents worry about the type of friends and friendships their child may be pursuing. Although your first impulse may be to say something about this to your child, it’s best to determine why you feel a certain way about a friend. Unless your apprehension is related to concerns about her health and safety, such as engaging in drug use or other risky behavior, it’s best to avoid power struggles about who she should be seeing. Doing so may result in her becoming even more invested in her friend choices and creating conflict in your parent-child relationship.
A more effective route is to listen when she speaks about these relationships and offer general guidance about “healthy” relationships. For instance, you could say, “It seems like when you spend time with Mary she does some things that upset you and make you feel unhappy. Maybe that’s something to think about—what makes you want to hang out with her when that is the case? Friends should make us feel happy and good inside, so it may be helpful to think about whether other friends may make you feel happier.”
Developing a relationship of trust and closeness with your child will make it easier for her to turn to you for assistance when friends bruise her feelings. When plans with friends fall through, you can help by providing a sympathetic ear and serving as a backup. Her “primary happiness”—inner well-being—will have become unshakable, and her “secondary happiness”—the well-being that she derives from every day activities—will be increasingly separated from her success at getting what she wants, including the approval of peers.
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.
5 Ways Parents Can Support Their Tweens When a Friendship Ends, Michelle Icard, CNN, August 9, 2021.