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How do you help your child cope with peer relationships?

Peer relationships are vital to children’s development. It’s the arena in which they learn to make decisions, to lead or follow, to become considerate and loyal, and to recover from mistakes. As parents we can have some influence over our children’s choice of friends. Here’s how you can be helpful while still encouraging your child’s independence.

De-Emphasize Popularity
Many parents unwittingly pressure their kids to make friends. They fret if their children aren’t invited to every birthday party. They are devastated whenever their kids are rejected by the “in” crowd. But when you push for more popularity, your children get the message that something is wrong with them if they aren’t part of what I call the charismatic kids. Also, if you emphasize popularity or being part of the clique, your children may become followers who go along blindly with the crowd.

Encourage Quality Over Quantity
The number of friends your children have is less important than having one or two good friends. I know a dad whose eleven-year-old son has a couple of close friends but prefers not to socialize as much as his father thinks he should. This dad is constantly saying, “What are you doing this weekend? Why don’t you call someone? Why don’t you invite a bunch of kids over? I’ll get a pizza.” I imagine the boy sees his father as disappointed that his son is not more popular.

If children are left out or picked on by their peer group, help them recognize that it is not necessarily their fault. Reassure them that it is normal, though painful, to be “in” one week and “out” the next.

Sometimes these popularity contents can be more upsetting to parents than to kids. Many children are more resilient that we give them credit for. Try to ride the waves of friendship fads, remembering that young people are fickle and peer groups are constantly in a state of flux.

Don’t Interfere Without Good Reason
Unless your children’s friends are leading them into potentially hazardous situations, resist meddling in their friendships. If you suspect that risky behavior is involved, remind your children about your clear, firm rules. Tell them,” Safety is a non-negotiable issue in this family.”

Otherwise, allow children opportunities to negotiate their own issues and differences. Kids need time among themselves to learn how to develop their own rules, to share and take turns, to play fair, and to recover from bruised egos. Certainly there are times and places for adult supervision, but try to intervene only when necessary. Of course, you must step in if your child is constantly a victim or is repeatedly picked on, rejected, or humiliated. A helpful resource for parents on bullying is a book by Charlene Gianetti and Margaret Sagarese entitled “Cliques: 8 Steps to Help Your Child Survive the Social Jungle” (Broadway Books, 2001).

Listen to Your Child First without always trying to Solve Their Problems
The stronger a child’s self-confidence, the better they’ll be able to resist negative influences of peers. Help strengthen children’s egos by listening attentively when they’re having trouble with friends.
Don’t jump right in with ready-made solutions or criticism. Instead of over-reacting, invite children to tell you what happened. They’re not likely to open up if you go through the roof.

For example, your son comes home in tears because his friends ridiculed him for backing out of a scheme to shoplift. Don’t yell, “You’re not spending time with those kids ever again!” Instead, listen to his anguish about being ridiculed.

Encourage him to talk about his feelings, and praise him for being strong and taking an unpopular stand. You might say, “I know that was tough. I’m proud of you for not going along with them. I’m wondering though, if these are the kids you really enjoy being with.”

Accept Their Right to Choose Their Friends
Keep in mind that you and your child have widely varying tastes and opinions. She may be attracted to people whom you don’t relate to at all, just as you and she probably don’t share the same tastes in food, music, or movies.

Try to respect your children’s right to choose their friends even when their choices don’t appeal to you. When your child mentions a new best friend, don’t grill him with lots of intrusive questions. Withhold your judgment. Even if you don’t like some of his friends, don’t automatically denigrate them, especially without any evidence of harmful behavior. For many kids, the peers you disparage become all the more attractive.


More Solutions to Parents' FAQs can be found in Nancy's books and articles found below.

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