Lean on Me: Tips for Teaching Friendship Skills to Kids

by | Mar 5, 2016

Ask a kid what it takes to make a good friendship, and they can tell you:

But that doesn’t necessarily mean they know how to make friends, how to translate their head knowledge into action.

friends sitting togetherThough you see kids make friendships very quickly in their earliest years, by the time they reach elementary school age, their relationships become more complex and confusing.

Think back to your own childhood, and you can probably remember plenty of times when a friend’s behavior especially bothered you or when you acted in ways you thought were benign but were actually hurtful – and you couldn’t quite figure out what it was all about.

Friendship may be even more challenging today. The current culture of friendship has complexities that simply didn’t exist in earlier times. It’s not uncommon for kids to spend more time with friends online rather than face-to-face. Yet the latter is critical for developing important friendship skills such as empathy, conflict resolution, and problem solving.

The Impact of a Skills Deficit

Just as some children struggle with math or reading, some struggle with friendship skills. They’re unable to read body cues, tone of voice, and subtle messages that are present as friendships become more complex.

Often, these kids fall to the habit of generating negative attention – acting out to be noticed. It’s more obvious and can be easier to get. But this easily becomes a vicious cycle, hard for both the child and their peers to break. Behavior problems can grow worse, as the child must keep upping the ante to get the attention they crave – even as that attention pegs them as a “problem” and keeps the cycle going.

What it doesn’t do is create the positive, supportive relationships kids need to feel safe and confident in the world.

The good news is that the skills it takes to create friendship can be taught.

Teaching Friendship Skills

Skills such as empathy, reading nonverbal cues, communication, and respect for personal space all can be taught. And like any skills, they’re learned best through action and practice. Talking about them can be helpful, of course, but unless friendship skills are practiced regularly, it’s that much harder to make them habit, let alone learn more advanced skills.

friendsPracticing social skills at home can easily be woven into everyday activity. Point out things like tone of voice, polite language, and nonverbal cues from others. Play board games and help your kids encourage others when they win and learn to be a good sport. Model positive skills for your children.

Don’t give attention to negative behaviors. Long lectures or time alone with your child can become a negative “reward.” Just state the negative behavior and ask your child to “try again.” Expect to be treated with respect by your children.

Additionally, many of the social-emotional activities in the Yoga Calm curriculum can be used – at home or in school – can help kids become more conscious and mindful about their current friendships, as well as what they value in themselves as a friend and in others they seek to become friends with.

When Children Struggle with Friendships

Here are some things to consider when your child is struggling with friendships:

    • The culture today is very different than when you were a child. Your child is the expert on their own culture.
    • Listen. Allow your child to express their concern and don’t interrupt. Acknowledge and validate their feelings – for instance, “That sounds difficult,” or “I’m sorry you’re going through that.” Resist the temptation to give advice.
    • Tell your child that you’ll help them solve the problem. Ask what they’ve already tried to solve the issue.
    • Ask if there’s anything they think might work. If they feel they have tried everything, give a few suggestions and ask if they think this or that solution would work for them.
    • Have them choose a solution to try. Tell them that you’ll check in with them to see if it worked. If it doesn’t, you and your child will keep trying. It’s important to help them remember that together you will find a solution – and let them know that sometimes it takes time to find a solution that works.
    • Use language that states that your child is strong: “I know you can do this. You are strong. I trust you.”
    • Avoid language that communicates to the child that they are a ‘victim.” Victim identification can be difficult to shed.

Keep in mind that some of what is seen as bullying is often a child’s lack of editing. They say whatever pops into their mind. Some of it is lack of communication skills.

It’s important to remember that the person that is perceived as cruel or bullying is often struggling as much or more than the child getting bullied. Empathy, skill building, and – again – practice can often resolve the issue.

The Importance of Adult Support

It’s perhaps inevitable that conflicts occur in any relationship. When they do, it’s important that children have adults who can listen and understand. If bullying or exclusion occur without any adult intervention, students feel trapped and alone.

Creating an environment within which conflicts are understood and supported by adults helps students feel emotionally safe.

Images by Felipe Bastos & Andy, via Flickr

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