A friend is someone whom we enjoy being with and feel safe with, besides our own family. We may have a loving and supportive household but we still need to make friends and maintain positive relationships with other people. Research shows that people may sometimes find it more comfortable interacting with friends than with their family. Moreover, compared to a young child who tends to rely more on their family, an older child or teenager will tend to rely more on their friends for support.
Each year, Kids Helpline assists children and young people presenting with issues on friendships and peer relationships. Concerns about this issue continue to be reported at consistent rates.
This topic has been prepared to help parents and carers support children and young people to establish and maintain positive peer relationships as well as to overcome issues around friendships.
Calm conversations with your kids will always be more productive.
Why is friendship important?
Friendship is crucial for a young person’s development as it fosters positive self-image and a sense of being connected and accepted. Evidence suggests that a teenager who enjoys stable friendships is more likely to experience academic and social success as they feel supported with the physical and emotional demands of adolescence.
Where to meet new friends?
There are many places where a young person can meet new friends including schools, workplaces, sporting clubs, libraries or through parties.
Parents and carers can help children to participate in healthy social activities whenever possible. You may draw on your existing network of family and friends and invite them over (e.g. for sleep over, barbeques, etc.) so the young person can learn how to socialise even in the comfort of their own home.
Barriers to making friends
There are people who find it easy to build friendships; while others may find it difficult. In general, a person’s ability to make friends can be impacted by a number of factors, including:
Communication skills help people engage with others and to get to know each other. Limited communication skills can therefore make it difficult to initiate and grow friendships.
What to do?
- Encourage the development of good conversation skills
- Model to the young person how to constructively contribute to a conversation or discussion
- If they need to leave the conversation, explain to them that it’s best to wait for a gap in the conversation before saying “Excuse me, I have to go.” or “Nice talking to you. See you later.”
If the young person in your care has limited English ability, they may need to access language support services. There are also free English language resources available online and in some community libraries. Encourage the young person to read lots of English newspapers and magazines to broaden their vocabulary and practise English at home. It normally takes a few years to be confident in a second language so a lot of practice and patience is needed.
The way you react to your child’s shyness can have a deep impact on their confidence in social settings.
What to do?
- Try not to push a young person into behaving in a more confident manner. This may make them anxious so give them time.
- Give the young person time to respond, and if they don’t feel up to it, let them be.
- Encourage your child to join activities and sports that they enjoy – that way, they would meet other people with similar interests.
- Try to share your own childhood stories about feeling shy – and how you coped. Children love hearing stories about their parent’s lives, and they may take comfort in the knowledge that they are not different.
Some children and young people may feel that they have to measure up to other people’s standards or give in to the pressures of popular culture (i.e. the unrealistic images often displayed on TV or in magazines). A young person who feels dissatisfied with their body is more likely to suffer from low self-esteem and may tend to stay away from others for fear of not being accepted. Visit our The Truth About Body Image topic for more information.
Low self-esteem may also be a sign of bullying, as children who are bullied often feel insecure about themselves and desperately want to be liked by others.
What to do?
- Encourage a young person to value their own individuality.
- Be generous in praising a young person when it is appropriate to do so. When required, provide feedback about strategies and/or behaviours they may have used to achieve a more positive outcome in a social situation.
- If the child is being bullied, try to respond appropriately as soon as possible. Visit our Dealing with School-related Bullying and Understanding Cyberbullying topics for more information.
Some children may feel reluctant to participate in activities without their parents and carers.
What to do?
- Provide opportunities for children to socialise with others – initially, they may need lots of support and encouragement.
- Arrange for some of their classmates to come over for dinner or a sleepover.
Children with a disability…
Children and young people with a disability who may lack a social network could be at risk of increased difficulties in coping with their feelings and school work.
What to do?
- Provide some information about your child’s disability to the school (if applicable).
- Teach other children and young people the different ways that they can communicate with your child.
- Prepare your child to answer questions that other people may ask about their disability.
- Ask the teacher to pair your child with a similar-aged child who is good at forming friendships.
- Offer your child some positive role models by telling stories about people with a disability who achieved their own personal goals and ambitions.
If your child is with other children, it is important to provide them some activities that they are confident doing as this will help them relax and to feel comfortable with others. A young person, regardless of their ability, is likely to withdraw if they are asked to do something difficult.
Some children and young people, although they may want to have lots of friends, may not seem approachable and friendly to others.
What to do?
- Model positive social skills to the child e.g. how to greet others; how to welcome visitors, etc.
- Encourage a young person to always look at the positive side of things and be ready to accept constructive criticisms from others.
- Tell the young person not to talk about other people’s issues when in the company of others. ‘Gossiping’ turns prospective friends away.
- Show the young person how to be kind and how to share with others.
It is also important for a young person not to compromise their beliefs and standards for the sake of trying to ‘fit-in’.
As a parent or carer, encourage regular discussion about the young person’s day-to-day experiences, and take the time to listen. Support them in their search for healthy and positive relationships with others by teaching them how to prime themselves for friendships, including handling their emotions and being careful and responsible in their speech and actions.
Children are different from each other, and their friendship patterns may be different from their parents or their siblings. Some of them get satisfaction from being part of a big group; others may prefer to have a friend or two at a time and feel entirely comfortable even if not invited to parties sometimes.
What to do?
- Allow the young person to express their own individuality but be there for guidance and to offer support when needed.
Let your kids know you care and remain approachable.
Making friends online
The high use of online technologies amongst young people has changed the way they interact with each other. Online social networking sites like Facebook provide a young person the opportunity to make friends and to stay connected with their peers. However, along with the social benefits come the risks associated with the use of these online facilities.
A person’s privacy and safety may be compromised while using a particular social networking site. Children and young people may be exposed to cyberbullying, sexual harassment, sexual grooming, and other fraudulent activities. It is therefore important that a young person is taught how to stay safe online and to use caution when accessing social networking sites and other similar websites. Visit our Dealing with School-related Bullying and Understanding Cyberbullying topics for more information.
How to keep friends
Keeping friends is just as important as establishing friendships. Below are some tips that children and young people may find helpful:
- Appreciate friends – try not to take friends for granted and take the time to thank them for the nice things they’ve done.
- Offer time and attention – remember to check how a friend is going and try to do some enjoyable activities with them when you can.
- Be kind and forgiving – understand that a friend may make mistakes or hurt their feelings unintentionally. This should not be a reason to end the friendship.
- Avoid jealousy – it is important for a young person to understand that we can have as many friends as we want, and that having other close relationships does not mean a friend is not faithful.
As a parent or carer, you may feel unsure if you should get involved in your child’s friendship issues, and if so to what extent. Remember that a young person does not have the full capacity to judge in a critical manner, and tends to tolerate attitudes and behaviours which you may find unacceptable; thus, it is important that they are provided support and guidance.
Parenting brings joys and challenges. Stay strong and love your kids.