Not sure I like my child's new BFF
Every child benefits from a parent’s belief that friends are important, and that what happens in their social life has a great deal to do with his or her self-esteem and future success in the world.— Dr. Kenneth H. Rubin, author of "The Friendship Factor"
If your child comes home announcing a new BFF (best friend forever) that makes you cringe, it might be best to hold your tongue—and to start gathering information. While parents generally want their children to be well-liked and have many friends—the type of children that psychologists refer to as "socially competent"—parents also have a few preferences when it comes to their children’s friends. Obviously, it would be in the best interest of all children to pick friends who are studious, courteous and kind, and who do not engage in dangerous activities. So, what should do you do when your child picks a friend who doesn’t seem to be an ideal choice?
Breathe and assess
Some child development specialists advise that when you get a bad feeling about one of your child’s friends you pause before reacting in order to assess what your real issues are regarding this particular friend.
"Take some time to evaluate what the concern is," advised Dr. Heather Berberet, a psychologist with experience in behaviour management for children and adolescents. "Is this a safety issue? Or, is this more of a reaction to the child being bossy or mean to others? Regardless of a child’s age, if safety is a concern, you always have a responsibility to protect your child. But, if it is not a safety issue, take the opportunity to talk to the child and find out how they feel about this friend."
Remaining neutral can help as you try to understand what your child is looking for—or getting—from this particular friendship. If you show open disapproval of a friend, especially when dealing with adolescents, you may inadvertently make that friendship more appealing. By showing your child that you are concerned about her feelings regarding this friend, you may also give yourself a chance to get further information about her needs.
How to ask
"Parents can explore their child’s attraction to the other child by asking questions and listening carefully to the responses," said Aimee Gelnaw, a Montclair, early childhood specialist with 30 years of experience as a teacher, child care administrator, and various other positions in early childhood education. "These inquiries might need to take place a little bit at a time, depending on the conversational style of your child."
Gelnaw offered some possible questions you might ask your child about the new friend:
"I don’t know your friend very well. What can you tell me about him or her?"
"What do you like about your friend?"
"Is your friend friends with (name other tried and true friends)? Why or why not?"
When you know more about your child's thoughts, you’ll have some of the information you need to help decide the best way to proceed regarding this friendship. As a parent, your role is invaluable as you help guide your child to find and establish friendships.
Value of a parent’s role
"Every child benefits from a parent’s belief that friends are important, and that what happens in their social life has a great deal to do with his or her self-esteem and future success in the world,” Dr. Kenneth H. Rubin writes in “The Friendship Factor."
In his book, Rubin—who serves on the faculty of the University of Maryland Department of Human Development's Institute for Child Study—examines some of the research that shows the importance and value of friendships to a child’s development. He points out the significance of parents conveying that they take their child’s friendships seriously and modeling the ways to be friends and make friends.
When children are younger, their parents have more control over their social life. If you as the parent do not approve of a play date, you can be subtle and put it off. Control is less possible as children grow older and are exposed to a greater diversity of people in school and as they are put into a greater variety of social settings.
By then, Rubin suggests, it is important for parents to shift into becoming "active listeners and advisors" as children grapple with developing different types of friends and with the ups and downs of friendship in general.
"As parents, we always play an important role in a child’s development of friendships," Berberet said. "We can’t pick their friends. But, we can convey empathy regarding their feelings toward their friends. We can also model our values within our own friendships and in the ways we interact with others."
From play dates to hanging out
Gelnaw agrees that modeling the type of behaviour and interactions that parents would like their child to emulate helps reinforce values the parents hold dear. She also said it's OK to express concerns and to set expectations.
"If you agree to try having the new child come for a play date, it is fine to say upfront that you will be paying close attention to whatever behaviors concern you, such as unkindness, sneaky behavior, disrespectfulness, etc.," Gelnaw said. "And when the child is in your home, it is OK to establish clear expectations by saying something like, 'In our home, we speak kindly to one another. I would feel better if you asked for your turn nicely instead of grabbing things and calling names.' "
For teens, Gelnaw advised, "You may not be able to avoid your teenager forming a friendship with someone who concerns you, but you can structure the ways in which they spend time together. For example, a two-hour get-together at a friend’s house, where you know there is adult supervision, is different than an afternoon at the mall. Keep in mind the opportunity for mischief and the degree of supervision necessary when weighing the requests for hanging out."
Good friends are worth it
Even though you may be unsure about that new BFF, applaud your child’s efforts to make and keep connections with friends. Trust that you’ll be able to help your child find friends that enhance his life and to show him how to let go of those who don’t.
Praise your child when he is a good friend to others and welcome his friends into your family’s life. Humans, after all, are social beings and need all the support and love they can get. Good friends will provide that for children as they navigate their way through life—and those friends can also give them joy and support along the way.
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