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Helping Your Child Navigate Friendships and Peer Relationships

Helping children navigate the journey of peer relationships and friendships can often feel like an uphill battle. Maybe you have a child who gets along well with their peers, but you’re worried about their ability to say no or express their own ideas without just following along with what everyone else is doing. Or perhaps you have a child that is struggling to connect or find shared interests with similar-age peers. Some children are caught in friendships that are experiencing frequent conflicts and aren’t sure how to get out of a cycle of bullying others or being bullied. Maybe you have a child that’s experienced more than one of these scenarios, or have multiple children struggling in different aspects of navigating relationships with their peers. Know that you are not alone and this is normal.  


children and friendships

It is important to remember that social skills are developed over time, which means that children are practicing the skills they need for positive peer relationships from infancy all the way through college. Even adults are still developing social skills as time goes on and learning how to navigate relationships through the ups and downs of life. Your child has time to practice and develop these social skills, and it is important to foster this as a learning experience and not something to "succeed" or "fail" at.


There are so many ways that parents can support their child as they develop these skills within peer relationships. It starts with a secure attachment between the parent and child, and that role expands and morphs over time. For young children, a parents role is to demonstrate relationship dynamics through play. While playing with their parents or other young family members, children see and learn the rhythm of a back-and-forth interaction. As children move into the preschool age, there is more facilitation from parents to help their child to be aware of others and how to navigate peer-to-peer interactions. You might help them ask for a turn with a toy or ask to play with a peer at the park. This stage involves a lot of modeling and helping your child engage in appropriate ways. As children move into elementary school, a parent helps to arrange more play interactions. This can look like play dates, finding a school that fosters social skill learning, or helping a child become involved in an extracurricular activity. As a child moves into adolescence, a parent’s role shifts into more of an encouraging soundboard to allow their child to begin taking their own initiative and creating a safe space for them to express the highs and lows of peer relationships, and encourage them to continue engaging in positive and appropriate ways.  


4 Ways to Support Your Child with Peer Relationships: 

  1. Focus on attachment – A child’s first social relationship is with their parent! Secure attachment relationships are indicators of social competence later in the child’s toddler and middle childhood years. Focus on meeting your child’s needs and building a secure attachment so that you can model healthy social and emotional skills in relationship with your child. 

  2. Help them express their emotions, wants, and needs – This is a skill that is needed to form healthy peer relationships, but starts well before friendships start taking off. Even when your child is young, help them state their emotions and ask for what they want as these are skills they will need throughout their childhood and will be important in peer relationships regardless of their age. 

  3. Notice when your child is seeking out play with a peer, and offer support – Especially when our children are younger, they may not always have the language to express what they are wanting. If you notice them sticking close to a sibling or peer, or copying what they are doing, give them language to use! You can say, “It looks like you’re wanting to play with them right now. Let’s pick a toy or game and we can ask them if they’d like to play with you.” As your child gets older, this will look like more practical support such as setting up a playdate with a peer they want to see, or encouraging them to do activities with groups of peers as they move into adolescence.  

  4. Remain calm and confident in your child – It can be so easy to become emotionally invested in our child’s friendships, because we want them to have successful connections! If your child is working through a conflict or a difficult situation with a peer, do your best to keep it cool in front of them. Your calm and confident mindset that your child can and will get through the tricky times with your support, will be evident to your child and help them remain confident as well. Remember your role is to be a sounding board and help your child find their own voice as they navigate the situation.  


Supporting the growth of positive peer relationships is essential as children grow and begin to create these meaningful connections in their lives. Peer interactions and friendships provide great opportunities for social and emotional development as children express their desires and ideas, problem-solve, negotiate with each other, and find joy in shared activities. Children will slowly rely more heavily on these connections, so it is important to give them a firm and positive foundation of what those healthy peer relationships look like. 


If you have concerns or questions about your struggles your child is facing while navigating peer relationships, we’re here to help! Contact one of our child life specialists today and schedule a free consult call here.

 


Resources: 

Shonkoff, J.P. & Phillips, D.A. (Eds.). (2000). Making friends and getting along with peers. From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development (pp. 163-181). National Academies Press. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK225544/  

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