Emotionally healthy kids need friendships

It is important to know that as children grow and develop, social relationships become even more crucial to their future well-being. (AP Photo)

by Marvin Lovell, E.D.M., M.A.

Editor’s note: That old song “You’ve Gotta Have Friends” applies to kids, too. Your child’s friends can help him or her develop self-confidence, a strong sense of self and even better communication skills. Going back to school means reconnecting with old friends - or the need to make new ones. Here’s how you can help.

In my private practice working with children and adolescents (and even adults), I find that the value of social connections are often taken for granted. We are social beings by nature and our sense of belonging with others is a basic human need. My work with children and adolescents often involves encouraging individuals to take the “risk” of connecting with others. I encourage this because I have found that children, adolescents, and even adults find comfort in knowing that others may be experiencing similar concerns and general life experiences. Once children realize how they have “connected” with others, many of my clients report feeling better, less anxious, and have an improved sense of self.

Developing these social relationships also has its benefits in how children adjust to school throughout the school year. When discussing many of my client’s experiences, I often have my clients discuss the benefits they have noticed in taking the risk of establishing relationships and they begin to value of being “connected.”

It is important to know that as children grow and develop, social relationships become even more crucial to their future well-being as it has its implications towards school and job success. At the start of a new school year, many children may be experiencing anxiety about their new teacher, issues that carried over from the previous school year, making friends, maintaining friends, and the list could go on. As a result of the many issues swirling in children’s young minds, parents, please encourage your children to talk with the friends they have returning to school or even establish new friendships.  The “jitters” could be significantly reduced and an early sense of belonging can be established. Your child will also feel as if they are a part of a larger social community. This is particularly important for middle and high school students as this age group tends to focus heavily on social acceptance and they struggle with the same issues experienced from pre-teen years through adolescence. 

Here are some tips to help your child connect with others:

Gently Encourage. You do not want to push too much especially if your child is shy. This can create even more anxiety. A gentle push could be a casual conversation about ways to meet others or a discussion about who they met in school and talking about like and dislikes in others.

Get them involved. Involved in anything! It could be sports, activities, after-school program, anything. Talk about children “sharing similar experiences.” Children thrive in their own social settings. This is where they learn to socialize and build those social connections. Even shy children often benefit as they could meet others like them and develop a social bond.

Know your child’s “style.” This is their approach to social situations. In addition to gently encouraging, you do not want to force your child to be someone else. If you know you are the “life of the party” and you think you can create that in your child, you are setting them up for resentment. Your child’s personality is unique. Honor and understand that. The objective here is to teach your child to connect socially with others not to become the center of attention.

Social media and cell Phones. It is o.k. to explore and allow children/teens safe and monitored use of social media and cell phones as this a great way for children in the middle and high school age to get connected and stay connected.  It’s also important to monitor their use and talk with them frequently about how they’re using social media, to ensure their safety.

Monitor and coach. You may be thinking to yourself, my child has no problem making friends, but it is important that parents provide guidance and age-appropriate supervision of their children’s social relationships. Parents who assume their child is “ok” socially sometimes discover that their child is actually lonely, socially aggressive, lacking self-esteem or lacks the appropriate social skills needed to make and maintain friendships. This is an area of life that often gets overlooked as we often “let kids be kids.” It’s a good idea to give kids gentle coaching, guidance, and encouragement as they build and maintain friendships, to help them grow into well-adjusted adults.

Casual supervision of your child’s ability to socialize takes different forms depending on the child’s age. Younger children can be monitored closely while monitoring older children requires also respecting their boundaries. Talk about how you nurture your own friendships, too. YOU are your children’s best teacher for learning the positive social behaviors that can help them make and keep friends throughout their lives.

Marvin Lovell, E.D.M., M.A., L.P.C. is a licensed professional counselor based in Philadelphia who works with families and individuals.