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kids and friendship

Kids and friendship: How parents can help | Ask the Pediatrician

How to help kids know what's a good friend (and what isn't) and how to be one.

Summer is here and children are transitioning from structured days in the classroom to friendships outside of school. Sometimes playdates (or hangouts for older kids) are easy. Other times they are not as smooth as we would hope. Friendships also become more complicated as children get older and there is less parental involvement.

All of this is normal, all of this is natural. The challenge is: How can we support our children as they navigate friendships? As parents, we can help our kids learn recognize the behaviors of a good friend, how to be a good friend and how to facilitate complicated relationships and bullies. These are skills we continue to learn throughout life. The foundation starts in childhood. Let’s talk about kids and friendship and how to help a child tell friend from foe.

Kids and friendship: Why it’s important

Friendship is important for everyone, not just children. Friends make our lives more interesting and strong community ties have health benefits. Children develop social skills and self-esteem through the process of making and navigating friendships.

The role of friendship and community changes as your child moves from being a newborn to a teenager. With small children, there is more focus on the nuclear family. You are more likely to have relationships with the parents of other small children. As your child grows, you may not know everyone in their classroom or on their sports team. Keeping the conversation open as to what friendship means, why good friendships are important, and what good friend behaviors look like can help your child avoid pitfalls.

What are the behaviors of a good friend? Talk to your child about how friends should treat each other. This starts with what good friend behavior looks like. It is helpful to focus on the behaviors rather than use the words good or bad. Have your child describe behaviors they would like to see in a friend. A young child may identify behaviors such as sharing, taking turns or saying kind words. An older child may identify good friend behaviors as being responsible, trustworthy, empathetic and thoughtful. Knowing what good friend behaviors look like forms a foundation. Children can reference back to that foundation if they are confused about whether someone is being nice to them, or if they need to course correct their own behavior.

Kids and friendship: red flags

Unwelcome behaviors: Just as we talk about good friend behavior, it is equally important to identify behaviors that are not welcome. Obvious negative behaviors such as name-calling, hitting, refusing to share and insulting are easy for children to name. Some behaviors can be more confusing. This can include uncomfortable jokes, dismissive or excluding behavior and negative nonverbal communication such as eye rolling. Children may have a hard time classifying this behavior and may not initially recognize it is unkind. Behavior that includes racist, sexist or intolerant comments needs to be called out as never acceptable under any circumstances.

Finally, behavior that leads to children feeling pressure to do something they would not normally do or pressure to conform can also lead to discomfort and unease. It can be helpful to talk with your child about these complicated behaviors. In general, if a child feels uncomfortable or feels bad about themselves after an interaction it is worth digging in to take a deeper look.

Bullying: Unfortunately, almost every child is the target of a bully at some time or another. Talking about how bullies behave in a general sense can help your child be prepared and recognize and describe bullying behavior. Bullies are almost always looking for a reaction.

When talking to your child about bullying, you can give them three initial concrete actions to take. First, advise them to walk away. Second, if walking away is not enough, teach your child to clearly and loudly tell the bully to stop. Finally, if the bullying continues, it is time to involve a trusted adult. Reminding your child that the bully is just one person, and that they have other friendships, can help them feel confident and grounded.

Staying involved

From hosting play dates to driving your teens and their friends—being involved and being present is a way to really understand where your child is socially. It is also perfectly OK to ask your children about their friendships. While little children often chat easily, talking about friends with older children can be more nuanced. It is always best to find a time when they are receptive for conversation. Start with open ended, non-judgmental questions like, “What did you and your friend do today?” Most children don’t tell their parents everything.

If your child is struggling with a friend’s behavior, let them know you are there for support, listen to the responses and acknowledge their feelings. This helps you avoid making assumptions and keeps the door open for future conversation.

Demonstrating what good friendships are like always helps too! Spending quality time with your children, listening to them and being emotionally open with them not only demonstrates what good relationships and good social skills are, but helps your child feel comfortable communicating with you when they do need support or to resolve a conflict. By addressing these challenges early on, children can develop healthy relationships and friendships that will serve them well throughout their lives.



More on kids and friendship in Seattle’s Child

How to help your child make friends

Childhood friendship in a digital world

6 expert tips for growing friendship skills


About the Author

Susanna Block

Dr. Susanna Block, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Seattle and lives with her family in Queen Anne.