Helping Your Child Have Healthy Friendships

Navigating childhood friendships can be tough for parents, especially when your child is dealing with a "frenemy." This kind of friendship can be confusing and hurtful, leaving parents unsure how to best support their child. In this blog post, Catherine Mallam, Shipley's Lower School Director of Student Support, discusses strategies to help your child recognize and foster healthier relationships, learning to set boundaries and identify the hallmarks of true, supportive friendships.

The bookbag barely hits the floor of the car or the kitchen table before your child recounts how a friend has once again been hurtful. The friend routinely breaks promises, is bossy, makes critical comments about your child, and uses the silent treatment. When your child speaks up, things improve for a day or two before the cycle repeats. Despite this, your child seems resigned to stay in the friendship because, they explain to you, their friend is “a frenemy.”

Parents often wonder what to do when their child is in an unhealthy friendship. We may be tempted to forbid the friendship, but this usually backfires. Often, two friends are part of a larger friend group, so your child could wind up alone. Or your child will announce that they are “not allowed” to be friends with someone, which can lead to conflict among other children who may feel compelled to take sides. Friendships are one of the only choices children can make for themselves, and along the way, it’s important for kids to learn what is - and is not - a healthy friendship.

How can we help our children have healthy friendships? 

  • Teach your child what a healthy friendship is. True friends are kind, trustworthy, and respectful. Ask your child, “Do you feel good when you’re with your friend?  Do you feel good about yourself when you’re with your friend?” If the answer is no, or sometimes, explain that while there is no perfect friend, we all deserve friends who consistently treat us well. 

  • Don’t normalize unhealthy relationships. The term “frenemy” has crept into the vocabulary of even young kids, and it inadvertently normalizes unhealthy friendships. Childhood friendships set the stage for future adult relationships, and children should not feel compelled to stay in an unhealthy, hurtful friendship just to “be nice.” Helping your child set boundaries is a life skill.

  • Teach your child to be assertive. Encourage your child to use an I-Message to express their feelings (“I feel _____when you ________. Please __________.’). But also let your child know that an I-Message is not a magic wand. Sometimes others respond the way we hope; sometimes they don’t.  An I-Message is about speaking up for oneself, not about the other person. True friends listen, respond kindly, and stop hurtful behavior.

  • Facilitate new and strengthen existing healthy friendships. The strength of children’s school friendships depends on time spent together outside of school. Ask your child to identify one or two kids whom they would like to get to know better, then arrange get-togethers. Your child will spend more time with those who treat them well, and less time with the friend who does not, which helps fade the unhealthy friendship. Over time, your child will see how much happier they feel with a friend who treats them well. 

  • Help your child end a friendship respectfully. If your child chooses to tell the friend that the friendship has come to an end, coach your child how to do so kindly, honestly, and without involving others or a device. Keep in mind this can’t be an every other day event; your child must be ready to make the decision and stick to it.

  • Don’t criticize the other child. Kids are learning social skills and bring to every friendship their own developmental stage, personality, strengths, and challenges. Some children don’t yet have the skills to be a good friend. Keep the focus on helping your child make good decisions about friendships.

  • Remember that as children grow and change, friendships grow and change. Your child’s best friend in fourth grade may not be a good friend in seventh grade, and the eight-year-old who is unable to offer a healthy friendship may be your child’s close friend when they are eighteen. Teach your child that friendships - like people - change over time, so friendships can strengthen, weaken, and even end. Set an expectation that your child will be a kind, trustworthy friend, and that they deserve and can choose healthy friendships - throughout life.

About the Author

Catherine Mallam

Catherine Mallam is the Lower School Director of Student Support at The Shipley School. With over 30 years of experience as a school counselor, Catherine’s experience includes designing and delivering a comprehensive K-5 school counseling program from its inception and founding a peer mediation program that served as a model for other schools. Catherine speaks to educators and parent groups at independent and public schools in the Philadelphia area about children's friendships, executive functioning skills, and childhood anxiety. She is a certified trauma practitioner through the National Institute of Trauma and Loss in Children.