Tips for Encouraging and Supporting Friendships During the School Year
Watching your child navigate the world of friendships can be an emotional journey for any parent—and it can be particularly difficult for parents of children who struggle with mental health concerns. Children who are dealing with social anxiety or other mental health concerns may find it extra challenging to make sense of the rules of friendships. They may require a little extra hands-on help in figuring out what it means to have or be a friend.
Here are tips on supporting that all-important relationship learning as kids prepare to reconnect with one another at school.
Help your child to understand the meaning of the world “friend”
The term friend is often used as a synonym for classmates when, in fact, the two are actually entirely different things. Not every classroom relationship will necessarily evolve into a friendship. It’s important to help children to understand this because doing so will help to relieve the pressure to be friends with everyone. Of course, you’ll still want them to understand the importance of being kind and caring toward all of their classmates—even those who aren’t necessarily friends—but they should understand that true friendships tend to require a bit of extra care and attention. That could be something as simple as asking your friend about their hobbies and interests or finding other ways to show that you care about them.
Modelling friendship skills
Children don’t arrive on the planet understanding what it means to be a friend. They master friendship skills by observing others and, as always, parents are important role models. You can help your child to understand how friendship works by talking about your own efforts to be a good friend and by sharing stories of times you had to take a step back to get a particular friendship back on track. It’s important for kids to understand that problems can and do happen in relationships, but it’s often possible to get those relationships back on track.
If you feel like your child would benefit from a little extra support on the friendship front, you might find it helpful to know that there is help available. For example, many schools and community groups offer friendship mentoring programs, where children are mentored through the art of learning to have and be a friend. These types of supports can be particularly valuable for children who are extremely introverted or shy; who are struggling with depression or social anxiety; or who have trouble setting limits for friends or respecting limits that have been set by a friend (because friendship is about both setting and respecting limits).
Don’t put all your eggs in one friendship basket
Childhood friendships can be intense—particularly relationships between self-declared “best friends.” They can also be fleeting! That’s why it can be risky to have all your eggs in a single friendship basket. It’s a good idea to give your child the opportunity to invest in relationships with more than just one friend. That might mean helping your child to identify other children they might like to get to know or asking your child’s teacher if they noticed any budding friendships during the previous schoolyear that might benefit from a little extra nurturing. Bottom line? You might want to encourage your child to hedge their friendship bets because it might not be possible to know ahead of time which friends will (and won’t) be in your class at school this year.
Navigating Friendships in a Pandemic
Friendship skills don’t come easily or naturally for every child—and some friendship situations are tough to navigate at the best of times, let alone in the midst of a pandemic. Here are some tips on helping kids to anticipate and manage some of the stickier situations they might encounter on the friendship front as school resumes once again.
Give your child a chance to anticipate, talk through, or role-play some potentially challenging friendship scenarios. For example: “A kid in your class suggests that the two of you swap masks for part of the day. You know this isn’t a good idea. What could you say to that friend?” Or “A kid in the playground is excited to see you on the first day of school. They run right up to you, forgetting that you’re supposed to be practicing physical distancing. What could you say or do if they’re about to give you a hug?”
Encourage your child to talk through any friendship worries. A child who ends up being in a separate bubble from their best friend might worry that the two of them aren’t “allowed” to be best friends anymore. You could help alleviate this worry by saying that there’s no rule saying that you’re not allowed to be best friends with a particular person—just rules about how much physical contact you can have with that person. And that’s definitely not the same thing!
Help your child to schedule a virtual or physically distanced face-to-face visit with a friend that they are hoping to be able to reconnect with at school. The friends could talk about what they’ve been experiencing in recent months and what they’re looking forward to, once school resumes. They might also want to talk about the possibility that they might not necessarily be within the same “bubble” within the school and that their “visits” at school might mean waving at one another across the playground and to come up with a plan for dealing that. Maybe they might want to arrange to do something else together outside of school, in a way that’s safe for all concerned.
You Don’t Have to Do This Alone.
If you are a parent/caregiver worried about your child, or a young person looking for help yourself – please reach out. Our network of child and youth mental health centres has 4,000 professionals ready to help children, youth and families with free counselling and treatment. We provide care in person, on the phone and virtually. No problem is too big or small.
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