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The Power of Friendships

With schools open, an easing of covid restrictions and spring in full bloom, children can now focus on one of the most important things in their lives - their face-to-face friendships.

As parents, we may be worrying about how our children catch up on schoolwork, but it’s crucial that children re-build their friendships and hone their friendship skills.

A wealth of research shows that having good friendships impacts almost everything in life – your mental and physical health, your likelihood of a good job, the stability of a romantic relationships, even how long you live.

We aren’t born with innate friendship skills, although you may be born with a temperament that makes acquiring these skills a little easier. We acquire friendship skills throughout our childhood, and beyond. Our social world is a complex and dynamic system, because there are so many other brains involved! It is in constant flux and keeping track of, and managing, it is very demanding in terms of information processing in our brain. Given that our brains don’t fully develop until our mid-twenties, and there is significant re-wiring during our teenage years, it’s hardly surprising that most children experience friendship challenges at some point.

And friendship challenges or issues are an area of significant concern for parents. Unlike the food we put on the table or our holiday destinations, we don’t have direct control of our children’s friendships. If things are going wrong, and our children are upset and hurt, it feels like a dagger in our hearts. We worry if our child flits from one friendship group to another, if she doesn’t have enough friends, if we deem his friends unsuitable, if she’s too clingy to one friend or he’s too much of a follower.

This is why it’s important that we understand friendships and know how best to support our children as they navigate their way towards the healthy friendships that will sustain them throughout their life.

In ‘Friends – Understanding the Power of our Most Important Relationships’, Robin Dunbar’s new book explains how his years of research has revealed that people tend to end up with similar size friendship circles, and that we also develop a ‘friendship fingerprint’ which is the way and the frequency that we interact with our friends. Although our friendship circles can change over the years, our friendship fingerprint remains relatively consistent throughout our life.

The typical friendship circle is 5 very close friends, another 10 best friends, a further 35 good friends, and about 150 people in total that you send holiday cards to. It seems that we simply don’t have the emotional capital for any more friendships than this.

Interestingly, these numbers include our relations, so people with large families tend to have slightly fewer friends. And, although these numbers may be slightly higher than this in our younger years or if we’re an extrovert, it tends to stabilise in our 30’s.

In terms of timing/age, we tend to make the long-lasting, deeper friendships from our late teens onwards. This is because highly emotional events help build strong relationships, and our teenage years are full of highly emotional events! Physical geography also seems to have a big impact on our friendship circle. For most people there is a 30-minute travel cut off, irrespective of whether this is measured by walking, bike or car.

I can definitely attest to this! I am still close to a very small number of friends that I made in my sixth form, another tight-knit group of friends made whilst living as an expat, as my first children were born, and now a small group of friends whose children are also friends with my children and live close by.

As we grow up, our friendship circle often changes.

First friends - when we’re young, our first friends tend to be the children of our parents’ friends.

Primary school friends - at school, we start to choose our own friends. We’re likely to choose children who have similar interests to us and are keen to play. What matters most is whether our friends are ‘likeable’ meaning they are kind, give others a chance to speak, listen well, are funny and can regulate their emotions. As children get to around 10 years old, ‘status’ gradually starts to influence friendship choices. Status is about attributes such as physical attractiveness, possessing trendy clothes or the latest accessories, living in a big house or doing ‘cool’ things.

Secondary school friends – the teen years marks the start of the developmental process of separating from family. The increased power of ‘status’, and the need to find your own identity, can lead to hierarchy, cliques, meanness, and exclusion, and can mean that bullying starts to increase. Being accepted by your peer group becomes one of a teenager’s most powerful innate drivers – even if this means acting in ways that they might not normally do and, on reflection, would admit are unkind and cruel. In their mind, it’s better to do this, than to be kicked out the group and become the target themselves. Whilst friendship issues can occur at any time, friendship drama is often highest around school years 7-9.

There is much that parents can do to support the building of a child’s friendship skills and create a positive ‘friendship fingerprint’.

1. Don’t panic when you see less-than-perfect friendship skills

See your children’s friendships as a work in progress. All children will make friendship mistakes – expect this! Do your best to stay calm, whether your child is the giver or receiver of mean behaviour. Don’t always assume it’s the other child’s fault, because it may be lack of skills in both parties. When I think back to my childhood, I can think of some real friendship clangers!

2. Practice makes perfect

Make sure you find time in your weekly schedule for your children to have playdates. Children need time that is not adult-led and will learn as much from a playdate or a sleepover as from a tutor session, especially if we’re not hovering over them! There is evidence that your social brain areas grow in size as a result of how much they are used. Also, within reason, it’s best not to micro-manage your children’s choice of friends. Telling a child that you don’t like their friends feels as if you are saying you don’t like your child.

3. Understand your child’s temperament

If your child is an extrovert, they are likely to have a wider, less deep friendship circle, whereas an introvert will have fewer, deeper friendships. Both have merit, so support your child in the style of friendships that suits them, even if it’s not the same as yours!

4. Remember to use empathy

Often when a child comes to you complaining about a friendship issue, they are not wanting you to fix it (even if you feel ready to march into the playground and give this other child a good talking to!). What they want most from you is EMPATHY. They like to hear “Wow, I can see how disappointed you are that you didn’t get invited to that playdate”, or “It feels horrible when your friends whisper about you behind your back”.

5. Know how to give effective support

Sometimes a few pieces of empathy is enough - your child’s feelings are soothed, so they calm down and figure things out themselves. Other times, they need more support, and we might need to do some Role Play with them, particularly if they’re struggling with other children being mean. As parents we often give advice such as ‘just ignore it, walk away or tell a teacher’ but this doesn’t help your child build skills to deal with challenging encounters. Help your child choose a suitable response such as ‘whatever’, ‘that might be your opinion but it’s not mine’, or ‘as if I care what you think’.

Then get into action. You can pretend to be the child saying something mean and get your child to practice their chosen response. It won’t go perfectly, but each time they repeat their chosen phrase, it wires into their brain so they stand a chance of being able to use it in the next uncomfortable encounter (at which point, the child being mean, might choose someone else to direct their comments at).

6. Look for the good

Make sure you’re giving your child plenty of descriptive praise. Giving this positive attention on a general basis nurtures their self-esteem. So, we say ‘that was helpful of you to load the dishwasher’, ‘your trumpet piece has improved because you’ve practiced twice this week’, or ‘you were resilient when you didn’t get picked for the team – I know you were upset but you didn’t complain’.

In our home, my children always say, ‘if you feel good about yourself, you don’t need to be mean to someone else’. Also look to praise any positive friendship skills your child demonstrates so they learn what matters in friendships. So, we say ‘That was kind of you to share your sandwiches when Katy forgot hers’, ‘that was thoughtful of you to go play football with Zac because you know he’s a bit down at the moment’, or ‘Sophie will appreciate you kept her secret – having a friend you can trust is so important in life’.

7. Model being a good friend yourself

If you gossip about your friends behind their backs or give away their confidences, don’t be surprised if your child does the same! How we interact and treat our friends is the model that our children will likely use with their friends. If you have good friendship skills, trust your child will likely have picked them up by their mid-twenties (or hopefully slightly earlier), even if developmentally they don’t have the necessary brain wiring to have these skills when they’re children and young teenagers.

If you’d like a more in-depth understanding of Friendships and how you can support your children, we’d love to see you at our Girls & Friendship Workshop on Thursday June 10th at 8pm.