On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Ryan Bunda, a school counselor for Highline Public Schools, sets up a classroom for ROAR, or Room of Alternative Recess. Amidst board games and a foosball table, he helps students practice how to play.
Yes, play. It’s the building block of childhood friendships. And friendship, as it turns out, is about more than just fun.
“We know from research that children who have close friendships are less likely to experience depression and anxiety, and are better able to cope with stressful life events,” says Dr. Karen Thierry, a developmental psychologist for Committee for Children (CFC), a not-for-profit headquartered in Seattle. She oversees research for CFC’s Second Step programs, which teach socio-emotional learning in the classroom.
In fact, Thierry says research has shown that friendships are also associated with improved physical health:
“Lower blood pressure! Stronger immune systems! Stronger cardio-vascular health! Friendships are critical in so many ways.”
The good news, according to Thierry and Bunda, is that like math or reading, the skills to be a great friend can be learned, both at school and at home. Here are their expert tips:
Help kids identify their emotions
Helping kids learn this skill can be as simple as verbalizing what you observe, notes Bunda. Try “Hmm, you look upset” or “You look happy” to open a conversation about how they feel.
Validate their emotions
Additionally, Bunda suggests acknowledging emotions by saying something like, “Yeah, I would feel really upset, too, if someone pushed me.” “Validating feelings helps you form a connection with your child,” says Bunda. “It helps them feel felt and heard.”
Understanding their own emotions prepares kids for understanding others’ emotions.
“Those who can empathize with others are the ones who can maintain strong friendships,” notes Bunda.
Most important, says Thierry, is to be a model.
“When parents are showing others empathy and kindness, kids are watching. They will imitate, they will internalize,” she says.
Empathy includes skills such as understanding social cues and body language. Try reading books or watching a show together to practice emotional recognition.
“You could ask, ‘What do you think this character is feeling?’” suggests Thierry. “‘What are the clues to what they are feeling?’”
Prioritize In-Person Play
“Playdates, extracurriculars. These are opportunities to practice interactions with other children,” says Thierry. She notes that hanging out in person is critical, because while technology can provide some benefits, “socializing on a screen is not the same as socializing in person.”
So much non-verbal information can only be seen when you’re face-to-face with someone.
“They can have a smile on their face, but if you look at the rest of their body, they might be fidgeting,” notes Thierry. “It might mean that they’re uncomfortable. You don’t see that on a screen.”
Also, in-person hangouts provide opportunities to coach kids on specific skills, like initiating play. In his Room of Alternative Recess, Bunda says that sometimes when kids pick up a game, “they have wide eyes and look frozen.”
He might encourage them to ask, “Does anyone want to play this game with me?”
Get curious about conflict
Kids benefit from learning how to deal with conflict. So if your child reports getting pushed on the playground, Bunda encourages caregivers to respond with curiosity by asking, “Tell me more. What happened before? What did you do after?” These questions provide context for what happened and give kids a chance to reflect on whether they played a role in the conflict as well. It’s also a prime time to check in on their feelings.
Bunda suggests asking, “When that happened, did you feel like you: Wanted to push back? Wanted to cry? Get help?”
Once a kid can identify how they feel (angry? upset?), offer tools to help them “get to a place of calm,” counsels Thierry. This might mean taking a break from a friend or doing some deep breathing.
“This helps them get back into the thinking part of their brain,” she says, adding that it sets them up to be more effective in finding a solution to the conflict.
For younger children, offer suggestions. If two preschoolers both want to use a toy, ask if they want to take turns or play with it together, says Thierry.
For older kids, she encourages parents to let them practice figuring things out on their own. Thierry tries to be a sounding board when her own teen wants to chat.
“I’m just so excited when she tells me anything these days!” she chuckles, “But I’ll listen. I don’t offer advice at first. I want to hear her ideas about how she’s thinking about solving a problem she’s having with a friend. Fortunately, she’ll often come up with some really good ones on her own. Kids might make mistakes along the way, but that’s all part of the learning process.”