Watching our children navigate friendships can be one of the hardest things we do as a parent. We know how important peer friendships are to self esteem and to enjoyment of school or activities. And we know how much potential there is for friends to influence our children for good or bad. We remember painful or difficult friendships we had at school and we hope our children won’t face those same challenges or hurt.
Some of us worry that our child isn’t very good at making friends. Are they too shy? Do they have enough friends? Parties and new social settings are really difficult, because our child can be afraid or awkward.
Sometime we worry that they will be bullied or pushed around by other kids?
Some of us worry that our child is being pressured or introduced to things we don't like by their friends. We don’t like the words, behaviours or attitudes that our child picks up from friends.
Some of us worry that its our child might be a bad influence on other kids. We might feel embarrassed or concerned. Is my child too violent or too cheeky? Does my child boss others around or tease other children? Is my child being mean to others (and why are they doing that!?)?
And then there are the normal ups and downs of childhood friendship: Like a soap opera, they fall out and then are best friends in the course of a week- with dramatic tears of grief and then displays of affection. The child they hated, they now want round for a play date. Its hard to keep up! When there are tears of rejection and heartache, as a parent we can feel turmoil, because we know we can’t control these social situations, and yet we see that our children are learning vital life lessons through this process, but it’s very hard to watch your child struggle.
So how can we help our children navigate the world of friendship, without being a helicopter parent?
Understand Levels of Maturity in Friendship:
One helpful starting point is to recognise that your child doesn't see friendship the same way you do. Some of the ways your child interacts with peers are based on their developmental stage. Robert Selman developed a 5 level framework for understanding how children experience friendship (see the table below).
This is fascinating! Some friendship problems may come because children are at different developmental stages to their peers, so their expectations of the friendship will be different from their friend. Can you identify where you child is in this framework? They may well be win a couple of stages at once.
Proverbs 17:17 NIV A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.
Proverbs 18:24 NIV A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
Colossians 3:12-14 NIV Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
It interesting many of the passages in the bible talk about the importance of love and faithfulness in friendship. The Biblical goal is mature friendship, and scripture teaches us we have to work at it, developing the fruit of the Spirit and growing in maturity. You are helping your child to grow into a mature friend demonstrating love and faithfulness- which is the character of our God.
Praying for your child and their friends:
Never underestimate the power of prayer when it comes to seeing a friendship dynamic change. You might be praying for your child to meet new friends. You might pray for your child to grow in love and patience, or another child to realise how hurtful their behaviour can be, but God is at work and he cares about these precious children and their relationships. And although we can only control ourselves (on a good day!) God is at work in the hearts of each person, and he can work miracles!
We prayed with one of our children for about 9 months about a relationship with another child that was causing stress at school. The prayers allowed us to process the hard emotions (keep forgiving, and affirming identity and courage, amking good choices), and also to asking God to break in. I think the prayer changed our hearts as parents, to be more compassionate towards a child who we might have otherwise disliked because of their behaviour. Now the relationship is much better, and not a source of stress. Thank you Jesus!
When you don’t like their friend:
Try to figure out why? Do you simply find them annoying, or is it certain behaviours or attitudes you don't like, or are you seriously concerned?
It’s probably best to not tell your child you don’t like their friend! It often backfires, shutting down future communication with your child, and it can make them strangely attractive to your child. Pray privately about the friendship, search your own heart, forgive if you need to, and make declarations over your child's identity and future in God.
Keep your connection strong with your child: You can say clearly, if you do not permit a certain behaviour, attitude of tone of voice, or that you do not like how your child is being treated (it is unkind or disrespectful, etc), but try to keep it about behaviour rather than being personal about the child. Avoid blaming your child's behaviour on the friend, generally address your own child’s behaviour or attitude. Look for the gold in your child, and praise them for behaviours and choices you are proud of.
A helpful tactic is to befriend the child. Have them round for a play date and meal and try to get to know them. You may understand a bit more of what makes them tick, and in time, through that relationship you can explain that you don’t permit that kind of talk or behaviour in your home.
If your dislike of their friend is based on something obviously harmful, such as bullying, over-influencing or dangerous behaviours, you will have to do something, but approach with care. Try a chat with your child about it, about how they feel and what they might want to do to change the situation. You want to keep the lines of communication open with your child, and if they feel you are being controlling, they may shut you out. Focus on building your child’s identity in Christ and developing other friendships alongside the one that troubles you.