Early childhood friendships can be sweet and endearing, but young children are still working out a lot of social and emotional issues that need guidance. It’s so nice to ‘drop’ our kids in the park and hope for the best so we can catch up on adult time, but often, young children need extra attention when navigating these new relationships. Here are a few tips on encouraging healthy friendships early on:
Lead by Example. Children are little mirrors, and even though they can’t fully understand their overwhelming emotions, they can see what a relationship should look like. Treat your own friends with respect so that young children have a basis to reflect upon. This seems simple, but it’s easy to get caught up in the playground drama of which parent doesn’t do this, which one breastfed too long, which ones are never watching their kids, and so on. This active judging can be seen and felt by children, and will become a model for their behavior. Even when warranted, hurtful comments made about someone your child loves will only make you look bad and encourage tattling. It is so important to expose young children to healthy friendships and appropriate behavior.
When Conflict Arises, Address It. Children experience fear, jealousy, sharing conflicts, and body control issues in their early years. They don’t always have the skills to ‘work it out’ on their own (although this skill is ideally taught in each circumstance). When there is a conflict that seems to be heightening, step in and remind the children that they are friends. Explain to them how you might work things out and give them the option to take a break. Often times, parents will either ignore the situation, or run from it. That sends mixed messages about lasting friendships. All conflicts have a resolution, and adults need to be able to show children how to handle themselves. Ignoring it or walking away from early childhood conflict can teach children to give up.
Handle the Hurt with Compassion for Both Children. We all hurt a little for our kids when they come running that ‘so and so doesn’t like me, or doesn’t want to play with me’. If we teach our children to take this personally, they won’t grow and develop into adults that have the awesome power to NOT take things personally. Explain to children that it isn’t personal (because it really just isn’t), and that their feelings can be validated without throwing stones at the other child. Allow both children to be ‘right’ and offer options for moving forward with play. If that’s not possible, play with your child. Show them that they are worthy of your time and that if their friend needs a break, it’s okay. Keeping the playful momentum will lessen the resentment of feeling rejected. It’s important to be fair to young children because at one time or another, they all struggle to be ‘nice’.
Talk About it Later. Keep open communication with your child about their friendships. When they express frustration, just listen. Remind them that their friends care for them, but are struggling to understand the adult dynamics of friendship as well. If they are calm, offer them alternate plans when conflict arises. Teach them to use their words and try on their own. This builds confidence in children and it keeps the parent child communication open. Not everything has to be said at the playground, as some of our parenting can be hurtful to others. ALL children are learning about life, not just mine. All parents want pro-social friendships for their children, not just me. But some things are best said in private. Teaching discretion is a positive goal. Think of all the things you share with your partner that you don’t share with the world. Our kids deserve a private place to ‘make mistakes’ and learn about life. Try not to say things like “that was mean of so and so” or “I saw him hit you”. That itself isn’t pro-social behavior and it lacks grace.
It isn’t likely that very many early childhood friendships will last a lifetime, but the friendship skills learned are critical at that age and those will absolutely shape the future for our children. While it may seem easier to let your children walk away from a friendship because it is sometimes tough, try to remember that almost all children are learning these skills, and almost all children struggle with them at some point. Win-win is the best outcome you can hope for and with some guidance, most early childhood friendships can maintain that healthy dynamic.