Helping Children Develop Healthy Friendships

Helping Children Develop Healthy Friendships

Positive relationships with peers offer happiness and security.

After a call from the guidance counselor at her son’s school, Amy Lucas, a Chantilly, Va. mother of four, learned that her sixth-grade son sat alone in the school cafeteria and was often afraid to eat in front of other students.

“He’s overweight and was being teased mercilessly because of it,” said Lucas. “We started seeing a therapist because he was so depressed and had very few, if any friends.”

From playdates for elementary school students to trips to the mall for middle and high school students, friendships can be a source of happiness,

“Making friends and maintaining healthy relationships is a critical part of a child’s social and emotional development.”

— Marta Cohen

security and comfort. Some children have difficulty acquiring companions and need help developing the social skills necessary to overcome this challenge.

“Making friends and maintaining healthy relationships is a critical part of a child’s social and emotional development,” says Marta Cohen, an Alexandria-based therapist who specializes in teens with anxiety disorders. “Not only do they help build self-esteem, and self-confidence, they also help a child establish their identity. This is especially true for children in middle school and high school. Knowing that a group of your peers has your back a critical part of their growth ”

Recognizing unhealthy relationships is just as important as nurturing those that are positive, says Cohen. “For example, if your child’s so-called friend teases or belittles your child, especially at school or in other public settings, you can guarantee yourself that the relationship is toxic. The same is true for a friend who encourages your child to break rules at school or be disrespectful to teachers or other adults.”

“Help your child identify the way that they feel after spending time with that friend, continued Cohen. “One thing that you don’t want to do is forbid your child to see their toxic friend or criticize that friend. Doing so could cause your child to rebel. Try not to nag. Instead have a conversation about the consequences of the undesirable behaviors.”

Developing and maintaining healthy friendships requires skills that not all children possess, says Laura Maxwell of Bethesda, a former school guidance counselor.

“Modeling healthy friendships by allowing your child to see you interact with your friends is one of the most effective ways to teach a child how to develop those skills,” she said. “You can even discuss the characteristics that make your friendship a positive one. It’s also important to make sure your child is treating others well and isn’t bullying or teasing other children.”

Put your children in environments where they are likely to meet children with whom they are compatible, says Maxwell. “If your daughter loves to dance, for example, try enrolling her in a ballet class and she’ll meet other children who share her interests,” she said. “Encourage your child to make a wide variety of friends, which will also help strengthen their social skills.”