Oh, the Drama: How to Support a Child Through Friendship Struggles
Finding the balance between letting our children be independent and protecting them from harm can be one of the hardest parts of parenting. The older they get, the harder it is to walk this fine line, especially when it comes to their friendships and relationships. How do we best guide our child towards healthy peer interactions while giving them space to learn on their own? How do we support them as they navigate social dynamics and also shield them from the emotional damage that social conflict can bring? Let’s talk about that!
Effects of Social Issues on Children
Friend issues and drama are to be expected in interpersonal relationships as your child grows. This helps your child learn advocacy, boundaries, conflict resolution, and communication. It can strengthen your child in many ways. However, if the issues are severe and prolonged, your child may experience serious emotional struggles. The best way to avoid this becoming a lifelong problem, is to support your child with mental healthcare when you begin to notice the effects it has on them and to be proactive about protecting your child’s wellbeing.
Watch For the Signs
There are not exactly telltale signs of friend issues or drama, but sometimes children will drop little hints to their parents! This could include refusing to go to activities with certain friends, irritability when asked about their day, less communication, and more isolation. Another way the child may let you know is by asking advice about a situation without divulging personal information, claiming that it happened to someone else. (I.e. my friend is dealing with x, what should she do?)
Start a Conversation
If you suspect that something isn’t right in your child’s social life, ask about their well-being in a judgement-free and safe space. During the discussion, point out the behaviors that are concerning you and ask what could be contributing to them. Try out these conversation ideas:
- Have what is called a daily check-in. This includes events throughout the day, feelings from events, good moments, bad moments, and moments that left you confused. This is a way to establish communication daily rather than just when something bothersome arrives for either person.
- Ask them to share 3 things about their day: two good ones and one bad one. Begin to assist and comfort with the issue; sometimes it doesn’t require a solution so ask first!
- Lastly, being straightforward. Sitting down with your kiddo in an open space in the home, no distractions, maybe comfort items or food, and tell them what you have been noticing! Explaining that you are just worried and want to be a support system to get them through anything they are struggling with.
Here’ s a good conversation starter: “I have noticed that when you come home from hanging out with (name) lately, you seem unhappy. Can you tell me more about the last few times you hung out?”
If you happen to get concerning information from a school staff, such as a counselor, it is best to ask your child to tell you what was discussed, rather than telling them what you heard. This will help your child feel heard and trusted to tell you what is going on in the situation.
A Child’s Age Determines Best Approach
Age and brain development play a huge part in how friendship issues impact your child! Younger children deal with stuff that isn’t as complex yet, so they might be able to get through it on their own or with minor guidance. As your child gets older, their personalities, values, and beliefs begin to form, and the issues become more personal and intricate. This age is the time where your child is learning interpersonal relationships on a deeper level outside of their family. Setting up an open-door policy for non-judgmental conversations is vital during this time.
For adolescents, 13 and above, existing issues are more likely to be hidden from you, and potentially more severe. Offer guidance and advocacy to your child any time you sense there may be an issue. Their developing brain and hormones cause more emotional responses and need for independence now more than ever.
Get Involved – With Caution
The severity of the issue should determine your level of involvement. If it sounds like simple miscommunication between your child and their friends, giving some perspective and advice to your child could help. This could include encouraging resolution and discussing boundaries that your child can establish for themselves.
If the problem is more serious (involving harassment, physical abuse, bullying, or ostracizing), you might want to take a more active part in the resolution. Here are some tips for handling this delicate situation:
- Get your child’s side of the issue, then speak with the school counselor about the situation as a whole.
- Let your child know why/how you are getting involved to help them understand the severity of the situation, as well as understand that you have their best interest at heart.
- Refrain from speaking directly to the other children involved, or their parents, as this carries the risk crossing a boundary with a parent or traumatizing that other child. Your role is to be the advocate for your child to other adults.
- Involve authorities if/when there is a matter of danger to the child(ren). Such instances would be harassment, physical assault, bullying, sexual or emotional abuse, etc. School staff members, such as the social worker or counselor, will be educated on ways to handle this within the school system and their policies, but will also be required to report any incidents to local authorities as well.
Remember – the most important thing is to keep an open, curious mind and help your children trust you by providing a judgment-free non-punitive environment that encourages them to open up and share the things that bother them. Trust your gut, and get involved when you feel it is appropriate, but always put your child first and allow them to feel in control of the situation.
About the Expert
Elizabeth Sabolboro is a Licensed Master Social Worker in New York, Maryland and Texas. Elizabeth has experience with counseling ages 5 to 65, specializing in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, with a focus in Trauma Informed Care, Systems Theory, Behavioral Theory and Attachment Theory. She has experience with children experiencing Behavioral, Attention, and Mental Health issues. Elizabeth is TF-CBT certified and has worked in inpatient, outpatient and Telehealth Therapy settings.