Updated: Feb 16, 2021
Belonging is important to everyone no matter their age. When resting, our brains enter a default network which actually mimics the same neural cognitive system seen when we engage in social interaction. Even babies are biologically designed to seek out human connection and infants as young as 2 weeks old have been shown to exhibit the same neural network described above.
Martin Seligman, the 'father of positive psychology,' developed a popular theory of wellbeing - PERMA - that outlined the 5 key elements of wellbeing; Positive emotions, Engagement, Meaning, Relationships & Accomplishments. This holds true for all ages and attachment theory shows that childhood relationships, especially those between a child and their peer group and teacher, are formative of their behaviour as an adult.
So what do children need to know?
1. Having Friends is Different to Being Popular
Typically it is in early adolescence (aged 11-14) that young people start to become aware of popularity and who it is in their peer group (usually in their class) who determines what and who matters.
However, over my 15 years experience as a primary school teacher, I can honestly say that even very young children are now aware of this.
They know who is 'cool' and during my research for my MSc, the primary school children I interviewed even used the term 'popular' to describe the people in their class who everybody wanted to be like, or be friends with. These children were between the ages of five and 11 - far younger than expected to be concerned about this kind of social status.
Being popular is typically about being accepted or admired by a lot of people. The problem is that this sometimes comes at the cost of personal values and integrity and it also puts pressure on the 'popular kids' to maintain their popularity. As a result, even great kids will sometimes make poor decisions in order to remain popular, and should that popularity decline, some experience serious mental upset due to their loss of identity.
The other thing about being 'popular', is that it doesn't always mean you have friends. Popularity gives a false impression of having many friends, when actually sometimes popular children feel lonely because they don't have a genuine personal connection within their social group.
Instead of worrying about whether they are popular or not, we need to guide children towards authenticity. Authenticity is the crucial difference between friendship and popularity.
With friends, we can be ourselves. When children (or adults for that matter) are trying to be popular, they will be what they think is required. Popularity is about putting on a mask to fit in.
True friendship involves taking off your mask and being yourself. This is what builds real connections with other people and is the root of a genuine friendship.
Having that one person who you can talk to, who listens to you, who genuinely cares about your wellbeing and who accepts you, flaws and all, and to whom you can offer the same in return, is far more valuable than just being 'popular'.
2. What You Feel is Not Always What is True
We all have those annoying automatic negative thoughts that pop into our heads and make us doubt ourselves and our relationships. You know, "What did she mean by that?" "What if he thought I was being rude or mean?" "Does that mean they don't like me?"
These thoughts drive our emotions and can lead to feelings of fear, loneliness and sadness. But, often these thoughts are based on inaccurate information. As adults we struggle with this, and children are far less experienced in interpreting these thoughts and emotions and can quickly feel overwhelmed or upset by the strength of their feelings.
I used to see this exhibited as tummy aches or sore throats in the children in my class, and the truth is that feelings of social isolation do trigger a similar neurological pain response to physical pain. We can all understand that feeling of knots in your tummy or a lump in your throat when experiencing emotional upset.
You can help your child by becoming their 'emotion coach'. Help them to understand and discuss their emotions by talking sympathetically and constructively about how to regulate negative feelings and navigate friendship issues.
Patiently helping them to identify and name their emotions and then unpick what triggered them is a good start. From there, you can encourage them to check for any evidence that what they think is true and begin to overcome their negative thoughts. 'Listening to My Body', 'Tough Guys (Have Feelings Too)' and Usborne's 'All About Feelings' are all wonderful books to start the conversation with young children.
This process will strengthen their resilience and also equip them with the socio-emotional skills they need to confidently navigate relationships both as a child and later as an adult.
3. How to Show You Care About Your Friends
Many children are amazing at making friends. They just skip over, introduce themselves and ask outright, "Do you want to be my friend?" If only it was this easy as an adult!
However, they aren't always that good at showing they care about their friends.
Teaching children about empathy and how to pick up on emotional facial and social cues is a great place to start. The books mentioned above are also helpful in recognising different emotions in others and teaching the language skills they need to constructively talk to their friends about how they feel.
Basic social skills like listening, understanding, sharing, giving and being generous are all essential aspects of showing you care about your friends.
Reciprocity, the back-and-forth exchange of thoughts, ideas, and feelings, allows children to develop the ability to become more logical and rational in their thinking. They also learn to problem-solve on their own and with others by exchanging ideas with other children, learning rules, and participating in or creating different games.
These are all skills that can be subtly taught at home or in the classroom by naming, praising and referring to them when they are demonstrated. For example, "I love how well you have listened to your sister just now, what a great friend/brother you are." Or, "You are being very generous today, thank you for sharing. You are such a caring friend." It may sound a bit obvious (or even cringy), but spelling it out clearly helps reinforce the message and make it stick.
4. You Don't Have to Agree On Everything to be Friends
In my experience, this is one of the core areas children become confused over. They often think that being friends means liking or thinking exactly the same thing and this leads to conflict and heartache when they discover they have differing perspectives.
Helping children understand that it is ok to like or think something different to their friends is essential to creating tolerance, openness and acceptance.
Other key skills that comes under this category are compromise and negotiation.
Resilience and self-confidence both impact a child's ability to understand the flexible nature of fairness. Although we often teach children that fairness means equal, sometimes fairness isn't everyone getting the same. Instead, it's everyone getting what they need right now, and that's a tough concept to appreciate.
A child who is resilient, open to different points of view and has the confidence not to take things personally, is more likely to be accepting of alternative ideas and differing models of what's fair.
The same is true of compromise. This requires an ability to negotiate without becoming frustrated and to work together to find a solution where they can both feel like they have been heard.
Asking children questions like, 'How many different ways could you solve this problem together?' can help expand their conflict solving ability. You can follow that up by asking them which one would be a 'good' or 'kind' solution, instead of a 'fair' solution.
5. All Friends Fall Out - Good Friends Say Sorry and Forgive
Finally, one of the greatest lessons children need to understand, is that ALL friends fall out at some point in their relationship. They have a bad day and one of them says or does something unkind and for a child it feels like their whole world has turned upside-down and they experience genuine pain.
The first lesson here is for the child to believe that falling out is a temporary situation and that their friendship is based on more than just that single incident. Asking them to remember or list everything that makes them friends is a good place to start.
From there, it depends on whether your child should be apologising because they caused the falling out, or forgiving their friend for their behaviour.
If they caused the argument, then helping them to use empathy to explore how their behaviour might have made their friend feel can help. This should all take place after they have calmed down and are ready to talk, of course.
Make sure your support and questions come from a place of calm, loving-kindness and try not to make them feel worse than they probably already do. Ask them to think about what they would like their friend to do if the situation were reversed and think of ways that they could show their remorse and apologise in a genuine way.
Apologies are tricky and if not delivered well can sound insincere or even aggressive. Studies show that children as young as 4 are more likely to forgive a friend if they apologise and slightly older children actively look for signs that the person is truly remorseful.
Using a 'template' can help young children begin to understand what they are apologising for and how to deliver it in a heartfelt way. Try, "I'm sorry for.... and for making you feel....Please can we be friends again?/ Please can you forgive me?"
This helps them tie their behaviour to the emotions they caused in their friend and reinforces the message of what makes a good friend.
Once the situation has been resolved, brainstorming alternative ways to have managed the situation or conflict will give both friends the opportunity to learn and grow.
If your child is the friend who was upset and doesn't believe they were at fault, a gentle discussion can test if this belief is true. If they are not the cause of the falling out, help them to understand how their friend's big emotions may have caused them to react in a negative way and say or do something they probably don't mean.
Forgiveness is one of life's greatest gifts and is something that should be taught from an early age. Holding a grudge is damaging to your physical and mental health and only leads to bitterness and anger.
Learning to accept an apology with grace, or even forgive a friend without needing an apology, is something to strive for whatever your age.
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