Navigating Friendships Can Be Tricky. As Parents, How Do We Help?

(Photo: Brittany Feiner Porkka)

“We’ll be friends forever, won’t we, Pooh?” asked Piglet. “Even longer,” Pooh answered.

As my son nears the inquisitive and more emotionally aware age of six, my husband and I find ourselves regularly engaged in conversations with him about friendship. 

What does it mean to be a good friend? Why do some people want to play with him and others don’t seem as interested? If a child plays with him one day, but not the next, are they no longer friends? 

This last question has been top of my son’s mind, but right now, it’s less of a question and more of a statement: “My friend didn’t play with me today. He doesn’t want to be my friend anymore.” 

We talk with him regularly as he raises these worries, reassuring him that just because a friend plays with another child one day doesn’t mean that child will never want to play with him again — it just means that kids are exploring friendships and having a good time getting to know different people, and that’s OK. 

These discussions have been ongoing for a couple years now as he interacts with more children at school and in the neighborhood — especially after COVID forced social distancing in his very early years — and learns what interests him most, and what doesn’t. I find myself constantly in search of tips and strategies for helping my young son develop strong friendships, a powerful source of fuel in this thing we call life. 

The New York Times in 2019 published a piece called “How to Be a Better Friend,” citing research that points to the health benefits of friendship — something I want my son to experience as I have. 

I’ve been thinking back to those early days on the playground, filled with long games of squeal-filled freeze tag, hide and seek, with a silly side of giggles, and so many smiling hours. But then I also remember those feelings of fear, what I now know were insecurities and shyness mixed with the desire to play with more kids and to make even more friends. 

As someone who has enjoyed the company and comfort of many incredible girlfriends from childhood into my forties, I had forgotten how much time and care it takes to build new friendships, and how overwhelming and uncertain it can feel. 

For the first time in a very long time — because my old friends are a constant warm blanket in which I wrap myself as much as possible — I am so fortunate to be making new parent friends, and I feel how unnerving it is, at times, to make myself vulnerable in ways I haven’t since I was much younger. 

When my son reacted at a playdate this summer by yelling a bit aggressively every so often at children he was just meeting, because he wanted to use a certain toy, I noticed he was acting in ways unlike himself when he’s comfortable with those surrounding him, and I found myself stumbling around in search of the best ways to help him navigate these new dynamics without coming across as dazed and (a little) horrified. 

I then started to become more fully aware of my own interactions with the parents of those friends — people whom I’m only beginning to get to know — and realized that, unlike many small children, while I’ve learned through many years to be polite and engage socially in ways that are (hopefully!) appropriate and healthy, I was feeling forgotten insecurities bubble up. Did I say the right things? Did I talk too much? Did I listen enough? 

If I’m feeling this uncertain after decades of learning how to begin and maintain successful relationships, I can only imagine how my five-year-old son, just at the start of his journey of social development, is feeling. I know he’s looking at me and his father to watch how we handle all kinds of situations, and I want to be sure I’m considering, as much as possible, how my interactions may influence his own.

Friendships aren’t built in a day, and we all make mistakes along the way. What I find myself wishing for my son is that, in time, he finds all the amazing things about the children he meets and appreciates their own uniqueness — even if he doesn’t relate to them in every way he initially hopes. 

As he learns important lessons in life, what I also wish for him is that my husband and I remember how hard it can be to learn how to be a good friend, and that we show patience and kindness toward him as he experiences pure happiness, laughter, and that wonderful feeling of a friend having your back — but also tears and frustration from hurt and disappointment. And I hope he learns to focus on the good and to find forgiveness for others as well as himself.

If you Google “tips for helping your child navigate friendships,” you’ll find numerous blog posts and articles on the topic. Here’s an article from U.S. News & World Report with some helpful insights:

The Most Common Reasons Kids Have Trouble Making Friends (2018)

Lately, my son has been on a regular quest to label, or assert, his “best friend” statuses. He will learn in time what that really means, and that it can be something different to different people.

But I can’t wait to see how he continues to sew his own magical friendship quilt, made up of faces from the various corners of his life, so that he, too, can wrap himself in it as he meets life’s greatest joys and challenges. As I’m experiencing the expansion of my own quilt, with gratitude, I will stand here by his side and help steer him, along with his extended village, as he finds his own Piglets to his Pooh. As he does, he’ll feel that unconditional love and know deeply that he doesn’t walk alone, and in the process, I hope he has a fantastic time along the way, even as he stumbles and picks himself back up. 

“A day without a friend is like a pot without a single drop of honey left inside.” —Winnie the Pooh

As parents, how do you help your own children navigate the ups and downs of building healthy, strong, and lasting friendships? Share in the comments:

Published by Katie McLeod

Hello! I am a Boston-area mom, wife, and digital communications specialist eager to connect with others making their way through family and mid-life happenings. Thanks for stopping by and sharing!

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