By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of The Survival Guide for Making and Being Friends
A best friend is one of life’s greatest joys. Having somebody to hang out, talk over problems, play video games, or compete on the sports field with can make life a lot more fun for kids.
But what do you do when your kids run into problems with friends? Maybe your child didn’t get invited to a birthday party. Or he found out on social media that his friends are having fun together and didn’t bother to include him. Some friends get into arguments and stop talking to each other for a while. When this happens, your child might think this means the friendship is over, which can be devastating.
Actually, learning to work out troubles is one of the most important life lessons kids can learn. How they handle these problems can be the difference between keeping friendships and losing them. While some kids seem to deal with these situations with ease, others struggle. Fortunately, parents and other adults can play an important role in coaching kids on how to work out friendship problems in positive ways.
Why Fights Occur
Kids get into fights for lots of reasons. Many arguments happen because of misunderstandings. Maybe your child said something that was misinterpreted by a friend. Teasing is common among kids and can make everyone laugh, but sometimes the target of teasing doesn’t think the joke is very funny. Some kids may share secrets, not realizing how embarrassing and hurtful that can be. Disagreeing about the rules of a game can cause hard feelings, too, especially if kids don’t know how to resolve the dispute. Friendships also change as kids get older. When a close friend starts spending more time with other kids, it’s understandable that the left-out friend may feel rejected. Sometimes, fights simply happen because people are in a grouchy mood.
Helping Kids Work It Out
One of the most important ways you can help children deal with friendship conflicts is to validate kids’ feelings. Keep it simple: “I’m really sorry to hear you’re having trouble with your friend. That’s really tough. Would you like to talk about it?” This is much better than telling her that it’s nothing to be upset over or that she’ll work it out—these statements minimize the importance of the friendship to your child and invalidate her feelings. Sharing your own similar experiences lets your child know that you understand what it’s like to have problems with a close friend.
Ask questions to get your child to talk more about the conflict. Here are some examples to try:
- Why do you think this happened?
- How do you feel about that?
- Have you both talked about it?
- How do you think your friend is feeling?
- What do you think you can do to make it better and work it out?
If you feel tempted to give advice, ask your child first. Asking, “Would you like to hear some ideas on how to handle this?” is a respectful approach and makes it more likely that your child will be open to what you have to say. Let your child know that it is ultimately her choice for how to handle the situation.
If your child is open to advice, suggest that she try to figure out what caused the problem. The best way to do this is by talking to her friend. If your child’s feelings were hurt, but it was just a one-time thing that was upsetting, she might decide to let it go. But if it’s something that happens a lot, such as not being invited to parties or a friend never returning phone calls or texts, your child will need to talk about the problem with her friend. Holding on to bad feelings and not sharing them can hurt friendships and cause other problems. Your child might end up taking out her anger in other ways.
Encourage your child to talk face-to-face. Trying to deal with problems over the phone or by text often doesn’t go well. It’s hard to figure out what other people are feeling when you can’t see them talking to you. Remind your child not to send an angry message or text, because once you send it, you can’t take it back. Talking in private is important. Remind your child to use I-messages and to be careful not to attack or blame the friend. Here’s an example: “Jenny, can I talk to you about something important? I felt really bad about how we argued the other day. How did you feel about it?”
It’s also important for your child to be able to listen to her friend’s feelings. Here’s an example: “I’m really sorry I didn’t include you in our softball game last week. I didn’t realize you felt bad about it—thanks for telling me.” Offer to role-play listening to a friend’s feelings if your child is uncertain about how to do this.
If you think your child may not be telling the entire story, or that your child may have behaved in ways that contributed to the problem, consider talking with the friend’s parents, especially if you know them well. You might be able to work together to solve the problem if both kids are willing. Don’t jump to this solution first—kids need a chance to work it out on their own. If the problem involves school friends, consider suggesting that your child talk to the school counselor about the problem. The counselor may offer to meet with both kids to help them work out the problem.
One exception to the dictum “let kids work it out for themselves” is bullying. Bullying isn’t a healthy part of childhood, and experts agree that adults need to get involved.
Encourage and Model Apologizing and Forgiving
Admitting you were wrong is hard, even for adults. Still, it’s the fastest way to work out disagreements and get back to being friends. One way to make it easier for your child to apologize and forgive is for you to model it in your daily life. If your child sees you apologizing when you overreact or say hurtful things, it will be easier for him to do the same with friends (and with you and other family members).
Help your child understand that even if he didn’t mean to be hurtful, apologizing helps the other person feel better faster. Keeping it simple works best: “I’m really sorry I hurt your feelings. I can understand why you’re upset. I should have handled that better.” Forgiving is also important. Holding a grudge only makes things worse between friends.
When More Help Is Needed
Some kids have more problems with social skills the others. For example, children with mental disorders can have more trouble controlling their impulses, empathizing with others, noticing when others are upset with them, or dealing with conflict. Counseling can be helpful when these problems interfere with a child’s ability to get along with friends.
Dr. James J. Crist is a psychologist specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. He is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults. Visit his website at jamesjcrist.com.
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