“I hate Maddie!” little Jenny blurted out driving home from school one day. “She thinks my hair is ugly, and now Sarah won’t let me sit with them at lunch. So they’re not my friends anymore. I hate them both!” she exclaimed while her mom checked her face from the rearview mirror. Jenny’s flushed face was on the verge of crumbling. And when her mom gave her a sympathetic look, out sprang the tears.
While Jenny’s mom merely asked about her day, she was now sitting in the driver’s seat with a hot potato in her lap. It was hard to know what to do.
When kids are overwhelmed by their feelings, and don’t know how to handle them, they pass them on, says Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Playful Parenting (Ballantine; $14.95). Eliminating bad feelings — by passing them to parents or other trusted adults — frees kids to explore and experience what’s happening around them without getting stuck on issues they can’t solve. You, left holding the hot potato, are not so lucky.
When your child shares her troubles, you feel her pain. As the parent, you feel responsible for comforting her and helping her repair broken relationships. As you consider how to respond, inwardly you revisit your own childhood turmoil, says Cohen. Grappling with your own feelings, you may ask probing questions that dig at your child’s wounds: “Why didn’t Sarah stick up for you?” “Did something else happen between you three?”
Michael Thompson, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and co-author of Best Friends, Worst Enemies (Ballantine; $14.95), calls this “interviewing for pain.” However, this approach can backfire: Instead of improving the situation, it can cause kids to relive and inflate the hurt. Although kids’ clashes are uncomfortable for parents, it’s best if parents support without intruding. Conflict is a crucible for social development.
Why Conflict Occurs and What Kids Learn From It
Psychologists recognize a number of universal human needs. First, we all want to feel a sense of connection to others. Kids seek relationships that make them feel special and spend a great deal of time playing and sharing personal information with their friends. In addition, we want to be recognized as competent, powerful individuals. Your child’s desire to make the dance team, score the winning run or prevail over siblings and parents on family game night reflects these needs for achievement and status.
The recipe for dissonance goes something like this: Create a close connection between friends, add a spirit of competitiveness and an ounce of “I’m-better-than-you-are,” and voila , you’ve got conflict. Winning friends and earning Guitar Hero rock-star status aren’t incompatible goals in the long term, but on any given afternoon, they can cause friction.
While it’s tempting to wish for perpetual harmony, a reasonable amount of conflict is good for kids. “There’s no doubt that some of the most important lessons our kids will learn don’t happen in the classroom but with a friend or two during playtime,” says Michelle Borba, author of Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me (Jossey-Bass; $14.95). A child’s sense of personal identity develops as she sees herself through the eyes of her friends.
When disagreements arise, kids learn to negotiate, stand up for themselves and communicate their values. And when they mess up, they learn to take responsibility and make apologies, Borba says. These social skills stick with kids into adulthood and are critical to school and career success. While parents can help kids learn from their experiences, we can’t learn these lessons for them.
How to Support Kids’ Friendship Skill-Building
Getting involved in kids’ social lives can feel like stepping into a minefield – you don’t know where hot issues are buried and missteps can cause emotional explosions. Use these strategies to support your kids through the trying times in social development:
• Create Opportunities: Kids don’t want parents to manage their social lives – that just isn’t cool. To help kids make friends, parents have to be stealthy. Invite another family over for dinner and let the kids entertain themselves while the grown-ups talk. They may groan initially, but they’ll rise to the occasion. Step back and let kids get acquainted through play. Share family activities often if kids hit it off.
• Check Your Expectations: Kids vary widely in how many friends they have and the depth of their relationships. “How many friends our kids have isn’t the issue,” says Borba. What matters most are your child’s feelings about herself and her relationships with peers. Friendship should be a (mostly) positive experience.
• Be a Sounding Board: When kids share their struggles, it’s tempting to step in and solve the problem. Resist the urge to call the friend’s parent or tell your child what to say or do. Instead, support your child by listening to what happened and absorbing the weight of her worries. With your emotional support, your child will find her own way to mend the rift.
Quarrels and breakups happen, and kids’ hurt feelings run deep. Often but not always – after some time or a shift in activities — kids find a way to make up. To parents, it sometimes seems kids break up and make up too easily. They go from best friends to worst enemies and back again before we even know what’s happening. Whether friends come or go, parents can offer a listening ear, a silly smile and a shoulder to cry on. But we can’t make them empathize, sort out their feelings, force an apology or fix their friendships. Some lessons only friends can teach.