Supporting children with difficult friends

Guest blog by the Counselling Directory, part of the Happiful family.

Children will fall out with their friends from time to time, especially as friendship groups often change during our early years, but they matter, and what may seem unimportant by our standards, can feel overwhelming as a child. Friends become a home from home where seeds of belonging, self-worth, and resilience can be nurtured. We take a look at some tips to support your child with difficult friendships.

4 tips to support children with difficult friends

1. Validate their feelings

It’s normal to want to dive right into the problems your child is having within their friendship groups. And it can feel especially hard when watching your child experience hurt or disappointment. But leaping to their defence or getting worked up on their behalf can make it difficult for them to process their feelings and work out the best way forward.

Try listening to their story and empathising with how they feel. An example of this could look like: “It sounds like when they said that to you, you felt embarrassed.” Helping your child label their feelings, such as confusion, loneliness, jealousy, and sadness not only reduces the intensity but also helps them feel seen and heard. Once your child feels fully understood, they will be able to move beyond worries more easily.

2. Support your child to navigate their own feelings

As parents, it’s easy to get clouded with our own template of life when dealing with the worries of our little ones. If we’ve experienced similar friendship struggles or simply feel protective of our child’s pain, we can sometimes react in an unhelpful (but well-intentioned) way. Perhaps, we are easily reminded of the tug to be accepted by others, naturally wanting the same for our children. Bringing gentle attention to your experience of the world, and how this may differ from your child’s perspective, can give everyone space to journey their own personal landscape of emotions.

Psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member Simon Mathias, says: “Parents/guardians are angst when children’s relationships start to become fraught or break down and often have a want to provide solutions. These solutions are sometimes based on the adult thinking and experience relating directly to themselves and not the young person.”

3. Curious questions

Asking questions about how to resolve friendship issues can help your child rely on their own pool of coping strategies. Conflict resolution conversation starters, such as “What could be helpful here?” will encourage your child to think critically about how to do things differently next time, cultivating a feeling of trust between you both. You can then offer insights as to how they may express their needs to their friends, such as “I don’t like it when you leave me out.”

Simon talks about the thinking support you can give a child as well as the emotional validation. “Their thinking patterns may include (a) I will never have friends again (b) what is wrong with me (c) filtering out the good relationships.” Simon’s tips include:

● Asking them about times when their thinking is contradicted e.g. “You say all your friends don’t like you. Isla comes around after swimming and enjoys your company. She likes you?”
● Their good relationships can be explored by asking them questions, such as “How did you get on a Cubs tonight? I saw you having a good laugh with Isaac?”
● When they express their thinking about feeling good, catch this and comment on this positively. Asking them what they like about themselves also builds self-worth, which helps in times of distress.

4. Help your child develop healthy relationships

Building healthy confidence at home can help your child face new challenges and develop caring relationships. Integrative counsellor and Counselling Directory member Jodie McCormack (MBACP) talks about positive friendships in the context of self-esteem: “It’s important to build a healthy relationship with yourself before we can begin to build one with anyone else. As parents, when we’re helping our children to develop positive friendships, it’s helpful to start by reminding them how unique and special they are. This
helps them to feel comfortable in their own skin, reducing the likelihood that they will feel a need to change in order to fit in with their peers.”

Jodie gives her top three tips when encouraging healthy friendships:

1. Model kindness at home so they’re able to recognise it within their friendship groups and know when they are being treated kindly or not.
2. Talk with your child about what makes both a good friend and an unkind friend.
3. Use books, films, and games to help get those conversations flowing.

My child won’t open up to me

If your child isn't giving you much to work with, the key thing to remember is to take time to reflect before leaping in. Action is sometimes immediately necessary, especially if your child is at risk or is being bullied, but you may find that more details soon surface if you let the dust settle.

If this doesn’t hit the spot, you can gently steer the conversation to your own experiences with childhood friendship groups. Being vulnerable and open can help you both connect, letting them know that their feelings are shared. If your child still isn’t ready to open up, simply let them know that you’re always here for them.

Making new friends

If your child would like to make new friends beyond their usual group as a way to resolve the problems, Jodie suggests: “Take a look at local clubs in your area that your child may be interested in joining, and bring them into the discussion so they can feel comfortable.” Children who feel shy or anxious may find making new friends even more of a struggle. Jodie goes on to say, “Children who struggle with anxiety, meeting new people, or being around big personalities or new environments may have the tendency to try to fade into the background and assume that if nobody talks to them, they must not be very likeable, so
helping them to see that friendships are a two-way thing and it’s OK to make the first move can be helpful.”

Taking action

If things are going nowhere fast, you may need to consider contacting your child’s class teacher about the friendship struggles. As with all communication, it’s great to keep an open mind and a level head. It may be worth making some notes beforehand in terms of your expectations so you can be clear on what you want to say, whilst remembering to listen to the teacher’s take on the situation.

If your child is still struggling, you may need to help them end a friendship by encouraging them to impose strong boundaries and limits. You can work on a plan together to help your child feel confident and supported. Allow the value of the connection you have with your child to be the guiding light. And
remember, parents always do the best they can with the resources they have at the time.

We hope this was helpful and that you’re feeling more confident about supporting your child with difficult friends.

Counselling Directory is part of the Happiful family

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