We were lucky enough to speak with Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a child psychologist and author of several books. Her most recent work, “Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends”, is a refreshingly humorous look into the complicated realm of children’s friendships.
What inspired you to write “Growing Friendships”?
I am a clinical psychologist and mom of four. Both personally and professionally, children’s friendships are deeply important. Just about every child will struggle socially at some point, and it’s important to understand this is part of growing up. I wanted to help parents and children navigate these obstacles in a light, funny and informative way.
What are some of the common obstacles kids face when developing friendships?
We need to be able to flexibly adjust our behavior to the social situation. There are five fundamental skills outlined in the book; reaching out to make friends, stepping back to keep friends, blending in to join friends, speaking up to share with friends, and letting go to accept friends. It’s important for parents to know that friendship problems are very common. It’s important as parents to navigate, not dismiss their friendship struggles. If you want your child to be more engaged and less likely to be bullied, help them make friends. It’s often good to help kids have multiple groups of friends, as when you have difficulties with one you can find comfort in the other. Also, given the number of friendship breakups, if your child has other friends as well it makes it easier to weather those. Encourage them to have a bus stop friend, a math friend, and a soccer friend. All of these friendships have value and greatly enrich their lives.
What can parents do if their child is having trouble making friends?
Offer empathy; as support and acceptance at home is very important. Give them a little extra loving and see if you can figure out exactly what happened. If your child comes home and said another child kicked his chair, it might take some questioning to figure out he also asked her to move out of his way ten times. It helps get a sense of what’s going on, especially if it’s a repeated pattern. From short-lived toddler friendships to the more intimate relationships of teens, it’s about teaching them perspective. Play The Maybe Game, and try thinking of possible explanations for other kids’ behavior other than they were just trying to be mean. By helping children get a glimpse of reasoning, we can do a lot about helping kids problem solve.
How do parents know when kids are testing out their newfound social skills or just being mean and taking part in bullying?
Bullying is a deliberate act of meanness directed towards a targeted child, and there is usually a power difference meaner, older, stronger, tougher, or more popular. I do think there is an important distinction between bullying and ordinary meanness, and true bullying usually requires adult intervention. This doesn’t mean you need to overreact to ordinary bumps in the road. Our first instinct is to leap into solve it for our kids, but friendship struggles are something that helps children become stronger. We don’t become masters of social situations at 9-years-old, its a lifelong learning process.
If a child is being bullied, how do parent’s approach the issue? Do they call the other parent or talk to the teacher?
It’s usually not a good idea to call the other parent, everyone is going to feel fiercely protective of their own child. The best course of action is to talk to the teacher, and find out what they see. Having a teacher keep a closer eye on the problems can usually settle it down. No child ever deserves to be bullied, and we want to address the behavior directly. We also want to find ways on a practical level that will keep the child from being targeted. Stay around their friends at recess or stand close to a teacher. They can also loudly point out ‘that was a mean thing to say’, which will direct the attention off of them and onto the child responsible for the bullying.
How can parents open up the conversation to empathy and communication when teaching their children about relationships?
I think we can do it all the time. We can do it whether we’re talking about our own experiences, or we can do it in the context of movies, books, TV shows. In Growing Friendships, we wanted to have a light hand here, which is why we deliberately made it funny. The best way to use this book is to read it with your child. Ask questions like: Do you know anyone like that? What would you do in this situation? How would you react to someone being mean? Connect with your child, and bring the information home. The number one response I get to this book is ‘I wish I had this when I was a kid’. It’s important to recognize these skills apply to adults too, as our social skills are ever growing.
What is the best piece of friendship advice you ever received?
“Kindness is the key to friendship.” There this magnet myth surrounding friendship, that children need to be able to draw friends to them. The difficulty is nobody wants to be the steel. Those aren’t friends, those are fans. My family moved across the country and overseas when I was growing up, so I learned to make friends across new schools and new cultures. I think I learned to focus outward, and if the other person feels good in your company, that’s the most important thing.