[Week 17 of 52 Weeks to a Better Relationship With Your Child]
How to feed a relationship
If you think it is normal for children to disregard parental concerns about friendships, I have some good news for you. A whole lot depends on the groundwork of trust you have built, combined with some strategies for keeping the subject of friends open. If you take the time to interact in a way that is meaningful and honest with your child, he or she will almost certainly look to you for your support and wisdom.
I’ve discussed how to give your child reasons to respect and trust you in previous articles of this series, beginning with How Your Attitude Toward Other People Affects Your Child. Another crucial factor is time and schedule. It takes enough margin in your life for important conversations to happen often enough and in a relaxed way for the relationship to grow.
It’s kind of like eating. If you only eat a minimal meal every few days, you will be malnourished and calorie deprived, although possibly still barely alive. If you are always stuffing your food down in a hurry, you will probably get severe indigestion and be cranky.
It can be tempting to add all kinds of activities to a child’s schedule thinking it is good, only to find that the parent-child relationship is being starved as a result. Even with the full schedule, the child will feel a lack of relationship and try to fill the void one way or another. This does not mean the child did not want relationship with the parent, but only that it was not available.
Guiding a young child’s friendships
Your goal as a parent should be to be very, very available for relationship. With this relationship, it will be normal for the child to actually ask the parent for friendship advice. The child will also be much more receptive to suggestions about friendships.
With the foundation for communication and relationship in place, there are also some specific strategies for guiding a child in his friendships. This can begin at a young age.
- When your child is young, hang out with families with similar values and priorities.
- Supervise your young children so that you can help problem solve at opportune moments. This doesn’t mean that you are involved in all their play, only that you are checking enough and in ways that keep you aware of what is going on. This is especially important for young children who can’t do a very good job of explaining well enough what was happening.
- Be a model of being friendly on many levels, from passersby to regular visitors.
- Spend time with your kids in situations where conversation is possible and natural, such as doing chores together, gardening, playing games, discussing happenings, taking walks. My youngest, now 21, specifically brought up working in the garden together as a great time to talk.
- Suggest ways your child can get together with friends.
- Facilitate an environment in your home where your child’s friendships can grow. This means things like having a peaceful and welcoming home, as well as guiding the children away from spectator activities and toward interactive and creative activities.
As your children mature, add elements like these:
As children grow up, it will help them if they learn to evaluate relationships to some extent. I’m not talking about deep analysis, unless it is really useful for a particular situation, but rather developing habits of being aware versus just being tossed to and fro.
- Teach them what they can figure out for themselves, so that when they have things they really need help with, you are not already worn out or overwhelmed. This doesn’t mean you aren’t available, but that you have helped them develop ways of thinking and things to consider for problem solving. This will also make future conversations about issues easier.
- Help them evaluate their own behavior that results from being with certain people. We all pick up habits from others. It is good to learn to be aware of this.
- Check in regularly in a substantial way. Ask about interactions and be ready to listen a lot. With a foundation of trust, this can easily be done in a way that is sincere and non-confrontational. Your child will know you have his best interest in mind and have a priority of making sure his life is as good as possible.
- Let children be involved in your friendships whenever possible, such as let them sit in on conversations and invite them to do things with you. From a fairly young age, my children would sit and listen when my friends visited. They found the conversations fascinating. Also, their father, in particular, had impressed on them that if they sat and listened they would often learn more than if they just interrupted with a bunch of questions.
- Help them problem solve friendship issues with a balance of reality and humility. There are practical and emotional aspects of friendships that can be defused when a parent helps a child gain perspective. Misunderstandings or disappointments are not always because someone was wrong or mean.
- Encourage and facilitate sibling friendships – if you can’t learn to handle conflict in the home, all other relationships are a bit of a fraud.
- Discourage your children from calling anyone a “best” friend. Help them see that this makes others feel insignificant. It also causes trouble when there are changes in life. Teach them instead to refer to “a very good friend of mine” or something less limiting.
- Help your child to feel secure and deeply loved/accepted at home so he will more naturally talk to you.
The truth about friendships
The word friend is used broadly. When we are young, it often means anyone we play with. Over time, we realize that qualifiers are useful. Is someone a trusted friend? Are they an intimate friend? We can help our children a lot by giving them insight into what it means to be someone’s friend. As our children get more mature, we can discuss friendship in a deeper way.
- Help them understand how long it takes to really get to know people.
- Help them learn how to reach out as a friend.
- Help them learn how to manage lack of reciprocation. One of my children remembers coming to me with frustrations and being advised that friendships/relationships take work from both people involved. She needed to choose wisely where to put the work in, because if it wasn’t reciprocated that was probably not the best use of her time.
- Teach them to think of how the other person might be seeing things.
- Teach them how to avoid being manipulated.
- Remind them that friends don’t have to be the exact same age.
- Explain how different experiences affect how friends respond in relationships.
- Talk about common insecurities.This will help them to put things in perspective.
- Be very ready to listen no matter what is going on with you, if at all possible.
- Help them understand the differences between things like being in groups, going to programmed events, and being assigned interaction versus initiating personal time and conversation.
Children as our friends
While our children are young, we need to be parents more than friends. As they mature, they can become very good friends. They will still enjoy having the companionship of people in their own age group, just as will we. However, constant age-segregation is a false construct that should mostly be ignored. Teach your children to build friendships with people of all ages and their lives will be richer for it. They will gain wisdom and perspective that is lost to those who limit themselves to people of their own age. If you have spent time with your children, some of those people can easily be you.