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Helping Your Child at Every Stage Make ‘Real’ Friends in a Digital Age

In art and in life, we are surrounded by reminders of the value of having good friends. As parents, it’s one of our top desires for our children to have strong, positive friendships. Along with helping them to grow socially and emotionally, friendships do so much more for your children, says Niobe Way, an author and psychology professor.

“Research studies clearly have shown that close and mutually supportive friendships enable your child to feel good about him or herself, engage more positively in school, and make better choices in all aspects of his or her life,” says Way.

Friendships are critical to a child’s health and well-being. “As parents, teachers and professionals, we need to understand that at the deepest level, friendships help your child thrive in the world,” Way says. “What parent does not want that for his or her child?”

Experts agree that parents can help foster their child’s friendships at every age and stage. In our busy, digital and material world, one critical piece of advice for parents of teens, elementary-age and preschoolers: Leave behind the computer games and television. Let children play and talk together to build true bonds.

Teen friendships

While the technology your teen uses to communicate with their friends is here to stay, texting and social networking should not replace face-to-face time with their peers, says Way, author of Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection (2011, Harvard University Press).

Set the tone early on that playing on the computer shouldn’t be the main focus of a friendship. Invite your teenager’s friends to hang out at your house and even better, bring them along on a family trip, says Way, the mother of a son, 11, and a daughter, 8. Sleepovers work out great, too, as long as all of the time isn’t spent with technology, but rather talking and sharing together.

“Your goal as a parent is to help your teen build their emotional and social health so give them that space to learn to communicate,” says Way.

Pervasive social problems, such as bullying and cyberbullying, would diminish if teens would connect more with their friends through real, face-to-face relationships, Way says. Parents must value friendships for their teens and provide the time and space to foster these special friendships.

Parents can role-model high quality friendships. Talk with your teen about the pleasures and challenges in your own friendships. Having friends is a great health booster to parents as well, Way says.

Elementary-school years

As an educator for 25 years, Melani Fay has observed a decline in the depth of young friendships. “Due to technology, kids are shallower,” Fay says. “They’re too plugged in. Playing video games is not playing together.”

Studies show that children aren’t as adept at reading facial expressions and body language, says Fay. “There is just too much screen time and technology between us at all ages,” she says. “Have your children go outside with a ball or go for a bike ride with their friend.”

Simple activities give children the space and time to talk about who they are about, such as their likes and dislikes. This improves the depth of their relationships. Talk to your children about far-fetched expectations they view on television, Fay suggests. Children receive immediate feedback and view a lot of competition on television. Teach them that life isn’t all about winning. Television also has many unrealistic situations about friendships.

“Parents need to role-model good relationships for their children, but sometimes they’re too plugged in, too,” Fay says. “Parents need to set limits with their technology for themselves and their children.”

Her own family practices the motto, ‘Love the one you’re with.’ That means when she’s spending time with her two daughters, she asks that none of them text while they’re together.

Social gatherings offer an opportunity to mix your children up with people of all ages and to teach them about friendships. Eating dinner together also is a critical time to make connections. Have your children’s friends over for dinner.

Young children

Friendships begin at home. “Positive relationships with parents and siblings will build a secure attachment and a strong sense of self-confidence that helps children to make friends once they spend more time out in the world,” says Fran Swift, a parent educator.

Young children constantly watch their parents. “They’re learning how to relate to others about generosity, sharing, caring and tolerance from observing the way in which their family interacts with each other and to those outside the home,” Swift says.

More exposure to other friends begins when parents start to bring their children to playdates and other get-togethers with other kids. By the age of three, children begin growing out of playing side by side - parallel play - and start interactive play with another. Around age four, they often choose a friend they enjoy playing with.

Respect your child’s temperament when helping them make friends, Swift says. Some children are slow to warm up into a group, while others immediately join in with others. The reserved child often will feel more confident with a planned one-to-one connection at first.

Parents can offer their child suggestions about how to say “hello” to others. Encourage your child to make eye contact when a friend says “hello” to them. It’s fun to role-play these scenarios together at home, being careful not to make the child feel too self-conscious, Swift says. Keep it fun.

Be observant about who your child is drawn to and create a playdate for them. Young children usually do best together at a park where they can more actively play together.

“Sometimes, it’s difficult for children at this age to share their favorite toys, so playing outside, going up and down slides, collecting leaves, looking for frogs and such will join two children in their common goal,” says Swift. “Even the most reserved child will enjoy splashing in water or blowing bubbles with a friend.”

The best result occurs when “pure play” between two friends is happening, Swift says. The sounds of talking, laughing and playing make-believe create bonds between children. Allow time for more imaginative play - house, school, drama - and less structured activities with friends.

Books about friendship for young children

In general, books about friendships can help your young child understand more about relating comfortably with their peers.  Swift offers a few titles:

Will I Have a Friend? by Author Miriam Cohen

Do You Want To Be My Friend? by Author Eric Carle

The Rainbow Fish
by Author Marcus Pfister

The Recess Queen
by Alexis O’Neill

Kim is a writer, wife and mother.


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