7 Tips to Help Your Kids Build Healthy Friendships

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I consider myself very lucky. I had two best friends growing up, both of whom are still in my life. I no longer live in the town where I grew up, which seems to be more the norm these days than in the past. Neither of these friends live in our hometown either – we all scattered for college, got married and are now raising kids and pursuing our careers. I’m grateful that technology has allowed me to maintain connections with both of these bright, thoughtful, supportive women.

7 Tips to Help You Help Your Kids Build Healthy Friendships

As a parent, I want to help my kids build these kind of healthy friendships. Despite what my husband says, building healthy friendships doesn’t always come naturally to everyone.

Our kids sometimes need support and coaching, because let’s face it – friendships can be hard. You are opening yourself up to someone else, becoming vulnerable in a way you haven’t with anyone other than family before and it is quite likely that your best friends will hurt your feelings sometimes. Managing through the ups and downs of early friendships sets the stage for building healthy friendships throughout your child’s life.

All kids are different and need their own guidance and support – especially kids who are outliers due to various asynchronicities, cognitive ability or emotional regulation. As parents there are some specific skills we can encourage as our kids journey into healthy, life-long friendships.

Build Negotiation Skills

At the heart of all healthy friendships is the give-and-take that is rooted in a deep and genuine concern for the other person. That give-and-take rarely comes naturally to kids (at least it hasn’t to my kids).  As adults we have likely learned complex negotiation strategies – either through formal education and training or just through years of experience. Breaking those strategies down for kids can be daunting, so I suggest starting with the idea of teaching our kids to focus on a shared interest or outcome.

I’m going to pick on my own kids for a moment. They both really enjoying playing together – they like spending time together – but they don’t share a ton of common interests. Given their druthers, Davis would play basketball and Patrick would play Minecraft. This used to result in lots of fights and hurt feelings. We have worked hard to teach them to focus on a mutual goal – spending time together. When that is the goal, then they can both step back a bit and make a compromise – maybe it is a game of Around the World first and then a cool down with a collaborative session of Minecraft or a competitive game of Plants v Zombies. Whatever the plan, when the focus is on the goal of spending time together (and not what they are doing), the squabbles abate and they enjoy themselves immeasurably more.

Foster Empathy

Healthy friendships require that both friends are able to put their own emotions aside and respond appropriately to the other person’s emotional needs; healthy friendships require both people to practice empathy.

Empathy isn’t simple. In fact, it requires some fairly sophisticated skills like distinguishing your feelings from someone else’s, understanding another person’s perspective and regulating your own emotional response. Some kids are naturally better at these skills and other kids need lots of practice.

In our house, we focus on:

  • Naming our own feelings
  • Identifying other people’s feelings
  • Role-playing facial cues and body language that frequently accompanies specific feelings
  • Exploring how people can have different perspectives
  • Developing an internal moral compass

Teach How to Say, “I’m Sorry” (and Mean It!)

Learning how to apologize is really an art form. Many parents want to rush the process by insisting that their kids say, “I’m sorry” for transgressions. However, if your kids aren’t cognitively and emotionally ready to apologize, then the obligatory apology doesn’t do any good. It becomes a hollow way to brush past hurt feelings. The simple recitation of, “I’m sorry” doesn’t teach our kids what an apology means.

True apologies require that our kids have 1) the cognitive ability to understand that they did something wrong, 2) the emotional skills to empathize with another person, and 3) the moral compass to want to make things better. This isn’t the apology of a toddler – it is the sophisticated and meaningful apology of someone capable of and interested in developing healthy friendships.

So next time your kid makes a misstep and really should apologize to someone, stop focusing on the outcome (the apology) and focus on the process.

Role Play Through Tricky Situations

Almost all friendships hit a rocky patch every now and then. What defines healthy friendships is the ability to manage through the hurt feelings and get back on track. This takes negotiation skills, empathy, and the ability to say, “I’m sorry.” Even with all these skills, sometimes it helps to practice in a non-threatening environment – that’s where role-playing comes in handy.

When your kids hit a rough patch with their friends, there will be hurt feelings on both sides. Helping your child break-down what has happened, how (s)he is feeling and how to make amends will make the actual friendship mending process go much more smoothly.

Our kids don’t always have the right words or the emotional regulation to do this naturally, so let them practice with you. Be the coach. Provide encouragement, a safe place to process, help deciphering the situation and gentle guidance.

Encourage Hobbies (Find a Tribe)

Making friends comes naturally to some kids, but not all kids. Kids who are outliers for whatever reason (IQ, the alphabet soup of diagnoses, innate nerdiness, etc…), sometimes struggle to find their tribe. The best way to find a friend is to do things that interest you and do it with other people!

Take inventory of your kid’s favorite activities and then seek out groups who enjoy those things. Martial arts, sports teams, chess clubs, naturalist groups, church groups, etc…It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it is important to your child.

When you find these groups, help your child understand that the friends may not share ALL the same interests as them and help him/her focus on their commonalities. It is unlikely that any one friend will meet all of your kid’s needs – encourage your child to appreciate the difference between friends and how they complement each other.

Make Your Home Welcoming

Yes. You want your house to be the “It House” – the house where all the kids come, where they feel welcomed and know they will have fun and be safe. It may be an inconvenience at times. It may go against your introverted nature. It may be noisy and raucous at times. You still want to do it.

When your kids friends come to your house, they will have lots of fun, but they will also have squabbles. If they are at your house, you can help model the steps of maintaining healthy friendships. You can teach kids to negotiate, model empathy and make amends.

This is hard work and takes a BIG commitment from you (and your spouse), but teaching your kids these skills is worth more than any formal education they will ever get. A PhD in microbiology won’t get you very far if you don’t know how to get along with other people.

Model Healthy Friendships

More than anything else you can do, you can model healthy friendships. Show your kids what it means to have a best friend – how you support each other and have fun together, how you work through disagreements, what it means to make room for another person in your life.

We travel with our best friends frequently (like 3 or 4 times a year). These are family affairs – two couples, each with two kids. The kids are also best friends, which makes it great for everyone. Part of why we can travel together is that we know each other so well and make allowances for each other’s quirks and needs – we accommodate each other.

I guarantee that if we are together for more than 3 days, the kids will hurt each other’s feelings. Every time it happens, we huddle with our own kids and help them process and then teach them how to make it better. It’s a hands on learning process in a very safe environment. I couldn’t ask for more.


Can Children Learn to Negotiate?

Teaching Empathy: Evidence Based Tips for Fostering Empathy in Children

Coaching Children in Handling Everyday Conflict

How to Help Kids Make Friends: 10 Evidence Based Tips

Hoagies Blog Hop - Gifted RelationshipsThis post was written as part of a blog hop hosted by Hoagies Gifted Education Page.

Check out other people’s thoughts on Gifted Relationships.

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    • Maggie McMahon says:

      Teaching kids to manage conflict and not fall apart in the fact of conflict is so important – not just for healthy friendships, but for life!

  1. katy says:

    Great post! I met my lifelong best friends in the 1st grade – we celebrate 30 years of being besties this year and they are such a blessing in my life!

  2. Dayne says:

    “I’m sorry” is the most important! It teaches kids to put others’ feelings into perspective and amplifies right and wrong. Great post!

    • Maggie McMahon says:

      Yes, Dayne – the most important part of saying “I’m sorry” isn’t the words – its the understanding and remorse that leads you to want to say those words.

    • Maggie McMahon says:

      Thanks, Cynthia! Life would be boring if we always got everything right the first time. Helping our kids navigate the tricky paths of building and maintaining friendships is rewarding work.

    • Maggie McMahon says:

      Thanks, Paula. Your words are very kind.

      Parenting is a hard job and all of us need some new ideas from time to time!

    • Maggie McMahon says:

      Thanks, Rachel! Kids need to know when we screw up or are dealing with something difficult. They need to see how we manage through the process, not just the result. If they know something is wrong and then all the sudden it is magically better, then they don’t learn how to do the work to MAKE it better!

  3. Sarah says:

    These are great tips. Having healthy social skills is really a foundation of how well our children do in school and other areas of their lives. Helping my children develop health social skills is one area that I feel anxious about as a parent. As I watch my children interact with other children it is not always easy to decide when (and how) to intervene and when to stay back and see if the kids can resolve a situation on their own.

    • Maggie McMahon says:

      Knowing when to intervene is such a tricky balance! Even when you hang back, it is always good to debrief with your kid afterwards – even if just to reinforce that they handled the situation well!

  4. Jenni says:

    Great suggestions! I have one child who has a hard time doing this naturally. For him, the friendships have come from an activity he is good at. By being on a team he has found friendships that extend beyond the field.

  5. Erin says:

    These are great tips! I’ve been working really hard to build empathy in my kids. If there is one thing I REALLY want it’s to be raising good, kind, empathetic people.

  6. Yes, with all three of my sons, we always strived to be the “It House” and it is important. All of these tips are important, but being the “It House” really deserves attention. As my oldest two are now 30 and 26 years old, I can say that for them growing up in the “It House” or as we called ourselves, the “Kool-aid family”, was instrumental in learning important social skills, empathy and communication skills. And you know you are the “It House” when you wake up on a Sunday morning and unexpectedly find nine 16 year olds camping out on your living room floor! :) Thanks for such great tips!

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